Challenging Notions of Absolutism
Challenging Notions of Absolutism

Since time immemorial man has been attempting to make sense of the complex world around him; compressing and simplifying it through doctrines and scriptures, organizing a multifarious existence into easily digestible absolutes. However, in the current age of globalization and free flow of information and influences this becomes increasingly problematic. Our world has slowly evolved; breaking away from the ‘black and white’ approach: splitting into kaleidoscopic modes of thinking, morality, ideologies, and perceptions. Borders become fluid and boundaries blurred— challenging the relevance of labels and definitions. Multi-media visual practitioner, Hamra Abbas’s practice emerges from such a world situated at the intersection of religion and culture: questioning the manifestation of belief systems through material culture and religious iconography, proposing instead a more amorphous form of religious “truth” experienced on a spiritual level.

More recently the artist explores this through a formal aesthetic study of color, contextualized through both Eastern and Western art history and cultural motifs. Her recent show at Canvas Gallery further extends her investigations into color theory which sprang from her work Kaaba Picture as a Misprint (2014), where the black cube of the Holy Ka’aba is minimized to its most basic form and presented as a glitch misprint, splitting black into its constituent primaries of the CMYK printing model. The connotation is manifold— at the forefront is an interrogation of a myopic view of religion limiting it to the fundamentals, subsequently a proposal of a more nuanced, spiritual and inclusive approach is seen as the narrative unfolds.

The artist delves deeper into this line of questioning through a more concentrated study of color theory and its sensory, aesthetic, cultural, spiritual and psychological significance. The fundamentals of our perception and understanding of color relationships are used to rip apart fundamentals of faith and visual culture. Through her narrative, and breaking away from prescriptive notions of art making, the artist employs distinct juxtaposed languages— representational and minimalist, traditional and modern, reconciled and justified. On the one hand is the Color Wheel series, in colored plexiglass and LED light, offering diverse forms of visual experiences that explore the properties of color as both material and optical. Transparent plexiglass in the custom shades of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow is cut into basic geometric shapes, arranged into five different formations and backed by white LED light, overlapping to combine into their secondary colors of Red, Green and Blue, and finally all coming together to create black. Through color, shape and motif simplicity, the series creates complexity both formally and conceptually.

Color Wheel 2, plexiglass and LED light, 14 x 14 x 8.5 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery

This becomes a sculptural representation of 2D printing using the subtractive color model, while the interaction of physical color in the plexiglass and the purely perceptual manifestation of three more colors (referencing the digital color system of the RGB model) turns it into a hybrid experience which is at once unexpected yet a highly predictable and carefully orchestrated outcome. However, the geometric precision is illusory, as the hues and shades shift and change along with the viewer’s position in relation to the work, transforming the visible form. This dispersal and convergence of colors into one another holds philosophical implications, speaking of unity, social cohesion, diversity, and pluralism; particularly in specific reference to the current socio-political climate, instigating debates surrounding race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Color Wheel 1, plexiglass and LED light, 14 x 14 x 8.5 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery

The shapes that are created as a result are not misaligned glitches, but perfectly symmetrical geometric formations which simultaneously reference Islamic art/Eastern vernaculars as seen particularly in Color Wheel 1 and 3, and Western idioms of Minimalism inspired by icons such as Kazimir Malevich, Josef Albers, Sol Le Witt, and Frank Stella. Color Wheel 2 in particular references Alber’s nested squares in Homage to the Square series. The fact that this series of works invokes post-modern sensibilities of abstract minimalism adds another investigative layer which unifies visual cultures viewed as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum, and references the artist’s own multicultural upbringing, influences and experience.

Color Wheel 3, plexiglass and LED light, 14 x 14 x 8.5 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery

On the other hand, a set of marble inlay works use color purely as medium, and through it initiate an exploration of materiality. Picking up naturally occurring color in semi-precious stones and minerals, she works around all its pre-existing hues and shades and all its limitations to compose her images. This is presented in a series of works executed in the traditional craft technique of parchinkari, which is marble inlayed with colorful semi-precious stones. The use of this technique not only opens up a dialogue with the local vernacular, but asserts the value and relevance of ornamental and decorative art forms in the current contemporary context. Sourced from various parts of the world with varying degrees of logistical issues, each stone carries its own cultural, political and spiritual significance, and then cut and arranged into a version of the color wheel and Goethe’s Triangle; one is pushed to contemplate the symbolic relationships that are formed and their psychological and emotional impact.

Color Wheel - Series, marble, calcite, jasper, serpentine, lapis lazuli, 24 x 24 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery
Goethe (Triangle) - Series, marble, jasper, serpentine, lapis lazuli, 24 x 24 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery

This is pushed further in Tree: Gardens of Paradise 3, which is part of an ongoing series depicting trees and foliage with stylistic and symbolic reference to Mughal miniature and architectural motifs. Here Abbas depicts the familiar Cyprus tree motif, recurrent in Islamic and Mughal art and architecture, and a symbol for paradise. The motif itself can be traced back to pre-Islamic Persia and was used on carpets in Iran from where it likely travelled to the subcontinent with the Mughals.1 Here it is presented in seven different levels of colored stones – perhaps referencing the seven heavens – flanked by a leafless tree with hanging fruits of lapis lazuli, a likely metaphor for death and the corporeal world left behind. Each colored stone originates from a different region, building a narrative of pluralism for this proposed paradise, and establishing the eclectic nature of culture in a globalized society.

Tree: Gardens of Paradise 3, marble, calcite, jasper, serpentine, lapis lazuli, 30 x 84 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery

In the artist’s statement, Abbas states, “as a medium, color by nature evades all attempts at definition.”2 Yet, once stripped of all context color opens itself up to a multitude of interpretations, because it is intrinsically expressive on multiple levels. Color is not merely viewed but experienced, and it has the capacity to influence our moods, thoughts, and mindsets. When used as a medium it brings all those connotations into the work. The more attempts to distill it into pure form, the more meanings one can glean from it. Through this body of work, Abbas demonstrates the elusive nature and aspects of color. In her work it truly evades definition, and thus rebels against the idea of absolutism, of definite truth. Each color is unique and individual, yet carries within it notes of the other, and in unity they create and allegorical interpretation of the sacred and sublime.

“Color Wheel”, the solo exhibition of Hamra Abbas was on display at Canvas Gallery, Karachi from 21st September 2021 till 30th September 2021.

Title image: Color Wheel 5, plexiglass and LED light, 14 x 14 x 8.5 inches, 2021, courtesy Canvas Gallery


  1. Naela Aamir & Amjad Pervaiz, The Symbolic Significance of Sarv Motif in Islamic Art, Majallah-e-Tahqiq Vol.39, Sr.No.112, July – September, 2018, page 11-12
  2. Hamra Abbas, Artist Statement, e-catalogue for the solo show Color Wheel, Canvas Gallery.

Nimra Khan is an independent art critic and curator. She graduated from the Indus Vallery School of Art and Architecture with a Bachelor in Fine Art in 2012. She contributes critical reviews and discourse on Pakistani art for various publications, including Dawn EOS magazine, ArtNow Pakistan, Youlin Magazine, The Friday Times, Newsline, and Nigaah Art Magazine.

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