Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas showcases her collection “Cityscapes” until July 17 at the Outlet Independent Art Space in İstanbul. The issue of Switzerland’s widely criticized ban on the construction of minarets in the country has been raised in İstanbul’s art scene with a new exhibition from Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas at the Outlet Independent Art Space in İstanbul’s Tophane quarter.
Apart from the political, religious and social implications of that decision, which has been criticized by many as Islamophobic, in terms of architecture, Switzerland won’t be much affected by its new rule since there are only four minarets in the entire country. But if you pay a visit to Abbas’ thought-provoking exhibition, “Cityscapes,” you can observe how “naked” İstanbul would look without its minarets.
Responding to a political event in such a subtle artistic manner constitutes a very powerful criticism, of course, although 34-year-old Abbas insists several times that she is trying to convey a question rather than a message through her work. “I was asked to make a site-specific project in İstanbul and I have been thinking about this for a year. When the whole minaret controversy happened, it was obvious for me and pretty simple to connect the minarets to the city where I was thinking about making a site-specific work. That is how it started developing,” she explains in an interview with Today’s Zaman.
The removal of the minarets set aside, the three panoramic photographs of İstanbul showing the Golden Horn area from different angles are technically superb pieces in themselves, according to Abbas. “I normally collaborate with people who know the technique a bit better than I do. In this case I asked Serkan Taycan to work with me for this project, as last year he worked with me on another site project called ‘Paradise bath’,” she notes, adding that each photograph is made out of 24-25 shots taken very early in the morning.
An image both happy and sad
The second section of the show features a very small portrait of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who has become a tragic symbol of recent US policies toward Muslims in the “war on terror.” A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Siddiqui was named a suspected terrorist after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2003 she disappeared in Pakistan after numerous reports indicating she had been taken into custody by Pakistani security forces and the FBI. She reappeared five years later when she was arrested in the Afghan province of Ghazni, allegedly with documents related to terrorist activities. While in custody she was shot by FBI agents in an incident in which it was claimed she had picked up an assault rifle and aimed it at them. She was subsequently tried and convicted in the US only on charges related to that incident, rather than any terror-related offenses. Many questions remain about the time she was missing and the reasons for her original arrest.
Named “Untitled,” the painting is a reproduction of a photograph of a smiling Siddiqui, taken on her graduation day in front of the Charles River in Cambridge, MA, where Abbas also lives. Produced with a special miniature technique, “this tiny image took three months to paint,” Abbas says. “This place is my neighborhood and this was the kind of connection I had,” she says, adding that all of the pictures you see about Siddiqui on the Internet are terrible images of a wounded woman. “But this one image tells a completely different story. It was this image that stayed in my head, but I could not imagine doing anything to it. Because it’s so loaded with the history of the image and what followed, all these different things that have happened in that five years and where she is now and everything,” she stresses, noting that she thought she should just paint it and leave it “Untitled.”
Though the pieces in the show make direct reference to hot contemporary political debates, Abbas refrains from even the slightest political commentary, pointing out that this would block some possible interpretations of her work. Asked whether or not this kind of artwork can affect the discourses that shape politics, she answers: “I do not know. I do know, but I think I would prefer to say I do not know.”
Art has the ability to take on a life of its own according to Abbas and the direction in which it may go is not intended beforehand or it cannot be envisaged by the artist before the work is out there for the audience. “So every artwork can be interpreted in 10 different ways. It’s just what angle you want to give it. So yes, with this work I have my take on it; many different people can have many different takes on it. And that is completely fine as well, because that is the ability of art to generate as many opinions or as many understandings and interpretations,” she explains. “Basically, an artist tries to create dialogue,” she adds.
The final section of the show, situated in the gallery’s basement floor, includes a small machine that claps together a ceramic copy of the artists’ own hands. As the movement goes on, parts of the hand get broken each time, highlighting the destructive aspect of positive or approving attitudes.
Abbas is a graduate of the visual arts program at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where she studied sculpture and miniature. She also studied filmmaking and photography at Universitaet der Kuenste in Berlin. She lives and works in both Boston and Islamabad. For more information about her work, visit www.hamraabbas.com.
“Cityscapes” will run through July 17 at the Outlet gallery.
01 July 2010, Thursday
RUMEYSA KIGER İSTANBUL