Sacred meets everyday in Gardner work by Hamra Abbas

By Cate McQuaid 

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.

 

 
 “Wall Hanging I” by Hamra Abbas is one of a series of site-specific works commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from artists who have had residencies there.

“Wall Hanging I” by Hamra Abbas is one of a series of site-specific works commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from artists who have had residencies there.

 Artist Hamra Abbas in front of "Wall Hanging I" on the facade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Artist Hamra Abbas in front of "Wall Hanging I" on the facade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.