As a girl growing up in Pakistan, Hamra Abbas would draw pictures of whatever she saw around the house. Last summer, visiting her mother in Lahore, the artist spotted a small keepsake, a plaster cast of a curtain covering the entrance to the Kaaba, the Islamic holy site in Mecca. She made a picture of it. Now that image is emblazoned on the façade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
“It sparked an inquiry about objects of religious significance in a neglected, sad state,” says Abbas, now a multimedia artist with an international career who divides her time between Cambridge and Lahore.
She stands in a winter sun in front of her enormous Gardner banner, one of a series of site-specific works commissioned by the museum from artists who have had residencies there. It’s a print of her black-on-gold leaf painting of her mother’s plaster cast, transferred onto vinyl. It has an intricate majesty, laced with patterns and scripture, and a coppery glow.
But it looks slightly askew. That’s how she found it hanging on her mother’s wall, dusty and far from level.
“Hung with a nail and a string,” she says. “It will be wiped off by the cleaning lady. . . . My mother’s house is cleaned from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every single day. It’s very dusty there. My mother has a big house, and her cleaning lady is lazy.”
The artist kept an eye out for other sacred objects and religious souvenirs to photograph as she visited friends and family in Pakistan. There was no lack of them.
“In a single household, maybe 20 plus,” she says. “That is the art, the decoration. It’s understood to have a sense of blessing.”
Several projects sprang from her collection of photos, starting with “Wall Hanging I” at the Gardner, and including “Kaaba Pictures,” a stunning series of photographic enlargements of miniature paintings she made of some of the Kaaba souvenirs she found along the way, a standout in the current 2013 deCordova Biennial. Other projects circling the same theme will be shown in a solo exhibit this spring in Dubai.
These works explore the intersection of the everyday reality of home life in a middle-class urban Pakistani home, and the ultimate truth represented by the Kaaba.
“The Kaaba is monolithic, both in understanding it as a religious object and just as an object. It’s a black cube,” says Abbas. Representing aspects of it through her varied art practice, mixing up traditional techniques with contemporary ones, and playing with scale, she invites viewers to look anew at the sacred site.
Even as it invokes domesticity, the installation of “Wall Hanging I” on the modernist façade of the Gardner, says Peggy Burchenal, the museum’s curator of education and public programs, “is similar in the placement of the fabric that drapes over the Kaaba.”
“I like to take a thing out of context, and put it in a new context. It gives it more weight,” Abbas says.
The artist’s own context is an ever-changing one. She says she was brought up with “casual religion.” Her husband, Irfan Moeen Khan, is pursuing a doctorate in Islamic studies at Harvard.
“My work has a strong portion that comes from our everyday conversations,” she says. When it comes to the Kaaba, she adds, “he’s the expert. I’m no expert.” They have a son, 2.
Not all Abbas’s work unpacks religious iconography, but much of it reconsiders culturally freighted rituals, images, and beliefs. “Paradise Bath,” a performance and series of photographs made at an Ottoman bathhouse in Greece, blends references to bathing in 19th-century Western paintings of bathers with Islam’s symbolic rituals of cleansing. The “Lessons on Love” sculpture series brought to life vibrant 3-D erotic miniatures she had found in a coffee-table book, which comically and disturbingly combine sexual acts with hunting.
Although she has lived in Cambridge for five years, Abbas considers herself nomadic. She has also lived in Berlin, and spends a lot of time traveling. Right now, in addition to preparing for her exhibition in Dubai, she’s putting together a commission for the American Embassy in Islamabad, and has two projects in the works for the Asia Triennial Manchester in the United Kingdom in September.
“I started to think ‘home’ is a state of mind attached to the physical. What you acquire, what you want,” she says. “I was talking to my husband about it. We still sleep on a mattress we bought from Craigslist. It’s not that we can’t buy a bed. We just haven’t.”
Maybe she uses her art as a means to discover where she is on a given day. Her “Idols” series comprises lively, cartoonish busts she has made of people she encounters and photographs in her everyday travels — on the street, on the subway, or, during the month in 2011 when she was an artist in residence at the Gardner, in the back hallways of the museum.
“Idols,” like most of Abbas’s works, involves translating images from one medium to another.
“I’m not an artist who takes a plain sheet of paper and works on it,” Abbas says. Instead, the more she displaces and translates images she finds elsewhere, the more she uncovers their meaning.