Hamra Abbas resists pinning down what her art is about, but her primary subjects are love and war and the relationship between the West and her native Pakistan — in history, in the colonial era, and since September 11.
The 36-year-old has been living in Cambridge for most of the past four years, while her husband works on a doctorate at Harvard. But she's shown her work at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, at New York's Asia Society, and in biennials in Korea, China, Australia, and Turkey. Last month, the Pacific Asia Museum in California acquired one of her "paper plates" — which are actually webs of paper strips arranged like traditional Islamic geometric patterns and printed with the words "please get served." Her portraits of young madrasa students in Pakistan recently went on view in Mumbai.
Trained in Lahore and Berlin, Abbas has created, among other things, installations of delicate paper Islamic patterns on floors where visitors must walk on them. ("The idea is that people walk over it and destroy it. . . . It's about destruction in some ways.") Her panoramic photos of Istanbul's skyline have all of the city's iconic mosque minarets erased. In a video, hands clap and the fingers shatter. ("It's about the collective approval that is cloaked in a simple gesture like clapping that signals support.")
One of her latest projects came out of time spent in New York two years ago: large photos of tiny portrait-sculptures of regular working folk she met there — a police officer, a taxi driver, grocery-store employees. She's aiming to explore something about how we connect with our neighbors and how people are getting by in the Great Recession. Her social point gets overshadowed by her new, weird, lumpy technique, which looks like sculpting with wads of gum.
Abbas's most striking works suggest charged connections between war and sex. Her series Lessons on Love (2007) isolates scenes from old Indian miniatures and transforms them into life-sized sculptures of men firing rifles — while fucking women. The combination of the two acts is bizarre, but seems to clarify deep facts about our motivations.
Funnier is Love Yourself, from a couple of years later — a table full of vibrating dildos in the shapes of bullets, rockets, and jets. Are they, ya know, pleasing? "This guy is effective," Abbas says of a purple-plane dildo. "Not that I have any intention to use it."