Anyone who has formally studied art and design would have most likely, at some point, learned about the colour wheel — a radial spectrum of various hues placed next to each other that change from dark to light. They would have also observed that black does not make an appearance in this gamut of colours. Instead, they learn that black is not even strictly a colour. It is the absorption of all colours and a consequential absence of visible light.

Hamra Abbas visits these concepts — considered design fundamentals — in her latest solo exhibition titled ‘Colour Wheel’ at the Canvas Gallery. For her, the statement that “black is a combination of all colours” carries immense philosophical potency. It speaks of oneness, unity, multiplicity, and diversity.

Black itself becomes all-encompassing. The colour wheel presents itself as a microcosm of every possible hue, with the autonomous hues exhibiting agency in determining whether they clash or coalesce with each other. The colour wheel provides indispensable support to the colour theory, a combined implementation of art and science to adjudicate what colours look good together.

Not only is it exercised in multiple situations in our every day, but it has also made indispensable contributions to psychology, by helping us introspect, reflect, and reason.

Colours have a spellbinding quality to transform themselves when placed adjacent. Three hues in particular — cyan, yellow, and magenta — can produce just about any colour when imprinted on paper in measured compositions. This reaction is a remarkable illusion that is seldom acknowledged.

Hamra Abbas explores the philosophical potency of the statement that ‘black is a combination of all colours’

Abbas translates this visual trickery into sculptural form, by creating plexiglass structures carefully layered over one another. Abbas superimposes these three hues to not only produce red, green, and deep blues but to also create black. She calculatedly shifts each layer from its axis or centre to allude to a glitch similar to erroneous printing because of misaligned pigments.

These mounted sculptures become a three-dimensional incarnation of any print on paper. The rotated layers mimic the motion of the wheels; they also conflate to produce a myriad of shapes that resemble Islamic art geometric patterns. As evident, Abbas pursues her longstanding interest in employing shapes to understand Islamic geometry and the philosophy that propels it.

Hamra Abbas has previously recreated gardens of paradise in marble inlay, for which she borrows iconography from Islamic architecture, prayer rugs and traditional crafts. One of the works from this series is on display at the exhibition. She uses stones such as jasper, calcite and lapis lazuli

to create a vibrant image of a heavenly abode, enriched with vegetation, berries and dense Indo-Persian clouds.

Another piece is a vivid representation of the colour wheel made from a range of naturally coloured stones. The contemporised marble inlay technique situates the artist’s work in the ongoing trajectory of historically indigenous art practice. Her choice of aesthetics reinforces the technique’s primary purpose, which in most cases is to assemble sites that denote spiritual devotion and reverence.

The techniques which Abbas employs require scrupulous attention to detail and accuracy, which she delivers seamlessly. The stones must be the right hue, and they must collate in a visual symphony without forming any fractures or cavities.

Similarly, the plexiglass must have the perfect hue, saturation, value. They must also be of the exact thickness to produce other colours when layered, and achieve a deep black that neither reflects nor lets light pass through. Symmetry and centralisation are essential to Abbas’ work. Therefore, she measures each degree of angle and distance between the layers with acute precision. The amount of attentive dedication and investment required poetically transfigures the process into a ritual-like act of devotion itself.

Hamra Abbas’ works share a similar visual lexicon with works by Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. These artists have also sought inspiration from colour theory and relativity, and Abbas’ installations fall in tandem with the formalist concerns around colour and shape they address.

One of her works from the Colour Wheel series expresses admiration of Albers’ Homage to the Square series that uses concentric squares to demonstrate how different colours react to the spaces they occupy.

Similar references by Abbas make the work trans-temporal. The marble inlay work borrows sacred motifs from the 17th and 18th CE Mughal architecture. Another of her stone works replicates Goethe’s Triangle — a diagram of the human mind which links each colour with different emotions.

Vernacular symbols immerse our cultural psyche. We naturally tend to interpret copious meanings from various colours. Abbas conglomerates several shapes to deconstruct black, which in turn produces a spectrum of colours. Those inevitably call upon narratives of faith, race, gender and sexuality.

The process essentially reiterates the philosophical translation instilled in Abbas after reading that black encompasses all colours.

Colour Wheel was exhibited at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from September 21, 2021 to September 30, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 3rd, 2021

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