Hamra Abbas' Paper Plates

Published in: Hamra Abbas: Object Lessons published by Green Cardamom, London 2009

Hamra Abbas' Paper Plates (2008) are formed of elaborate and highly decorative Islamic patterns, skilfully made by hand out of small paper strips. When the circular collages of paper patterns were completed, the artist worked with a paper plate factory where the sheets were pressed into the form of plates. The resulting paper plates were then divided into ten stacks, each grouping representing a differently patterned variety of plate.

Their fragile beauty is very striking. With their lattice-like structure and pervious material, these delicate sculptures cannot fulfil their function as plates at all. This fact is emphasised by the way they are presented on pedestals, lit-up like precious artefacts in a manner not usually associated with low-value materials like paper. The tension between their function and design as well as between material and artistic value, highlights one of the most striking aspects of the Paper Plates.

This contradiction permeates the work at another level. Printed across the interlocking paper-strips runs the impossible request ‘Please get served'. This order can be read with irony given that clearly no one is there to serve. Yet, if one anyhow tries to follow this order, one inevitably meets the problem that the plates are unreachable under the glass case and, furthermore, would be unusable as plates, or for any other 'practical' purpose, for that matter. This raises questions that are central to Abbas: for whom is art actually made and how are viewers supposed to access it? Prevented from touching the work or using the plates the only thing we can do is admire their beauty from a distance perhaps suddenly realizing that, in this case, we get served in another, much more satisfying way than usual.

In this way Abbas ruminates over the questions regarding recipient and accessibility not by analysis but through purely visual means , namely by juxtaposing two contradictory things – reachable and unreachable, practical and unpractical, high and low. Such an approach not only appears in her earlier paper collage works, such as the large-scale installation Please Do Not Step (2004), but also in her more recent paper collages It Was A Little Demon I Tell You and Despair, both made in 2008. In these recent works, the former still consists of white strips while the latter is made of blue and red paper.

Both works introduce a new spatial aspect into Abbas' paper collages, either in the form of house-like structures or through the construction of the word „Despair“,.thus transforming the flat pattern into a small-scale installation. The word “Love” printed in tiny letters on the paper strips appears in both works. Again, Abbas plays with contrariness. The flat and the spatial, the combination of word and form and not least the idea of good and bad are all united in one piece. In the end, the fundamental question remains: What will triumph: demonic despair or true love?