Photo of multimedia artist Karma Bint Abbas.
Left: Karma Bint Abbas. Photo by Basem Tash, 2023. Right: Bayti, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. 107×81 cm. Photo courtesy of EV Gallery.

Karma Bint Abbas’ first solo exhibition, “Bridging Hearts: Uncovering Islam’s Harmony,” is an innovative work that transcends boundaries and fosters a deeper connection between viewers’ hearts and open minds. In her recent interview, Clare Gemima sat down with Abbas to delve into the nuanced exploration of her pastel color palette and diverse materialistic techniques, revealing how her work challenges stereotypes and extends an invitation to all into the rich warmth of Arab culture.

“Bridging Hearts: Uncovering Islam’s Harmony,” is currently on view at EV Gallery through October 5 by appointment.

Clare Gemima: What inspired you to create an art exhibition that focuses on Islam’s harmony and tranquility, and how has this concept evolved since the first time you started thinking about it? 

Karma Bint Abbas: I wasn’t intentionally planning on creating an art exhibition about Islam and my connection to the Middle East—it really all happened naturally. When I first moved to Brooklyn three years ago, I was feeling very homesick and decided to paint something that would help me deal with those emotions. That’s when I painted “Bayti,” 2023 and “Ardi,” 2021.

I missed the comfort that home gave me, as well as the small details of it in my memory. Whether that be the flowerpot in my grandmother’s home, to the colorful pillows in the living room, or the Persian rug in the entrance, the painting was just a mixture of items from home. They’re a distorted mixture of things from my memory, colored with a pastel palette that provided comfort for me at the time.

In Western media, Muslims and Arabs are portrayed as violent and angry people, but what isn’t portrayed is how kind and generous the culture is.

My paintings of landscapes with olive trees aren’t necessarily specific places that I know, but rather a mixture of aspects from home, and a distorted combination of views, familiar feelings and objects deep within my memory. It began my journey towards finding a personally distinctive style. 

Clare Gemima: Can you explain the significance of your choice of pastel colors and how they contribute to the overall mood and aesthetics of your work in this exhibition? How do they enhance the theme of harmony?

Karma Bint Abbas: The use of pastel colors was initially used because I am drawn to them naturally and they evoke feelings of calmness and relaxation. They also feel more dreamlike and whimsical. These colors also help send my message to viewers, my message of trying to break the misconceptions that people have of Muslims and the Middle East in the West.

In Western media, Muslims and Arabs are portrayed as violent and angry people, but what isn’t portrayed is how kind and generous the culture is. Islamic and Middle Eastern culture is characterized by a rich tradition of generosity and kindness that has been deeply ingrained for centuries. Building long-lasting relationships with friends and family is very important. In reality, it is a very warm and generous culture. 

Bayti by Karma Bint Abbas
Bayti, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. 107×81 cm. Photo courtesy of EV Gallery.

Clare Gemima: How do you imagine your viewer’s emotions or thoughts being challenged by experiencing “Bridging Hearts: Uncovering Islam’s Harmony”?

Karma Bint Abbas: I hope viewers feel peaceful and calm as they view my pieces, and that it may help break the misconceptions and false stereotypes they may have of the religion or region. For them to experience my personal feelings towards my home and religion through paint and mixed mediums might help with that. I’m also interested in seeing how they relate to my pieces, especially if they come from an entirely different culture.

Mixed media pieces by Karma Bint Abbas
Mixed Media pieces, 2023. Dimensions vary. Photo courtesy of EV Gallery.

Clare Gemima: Could you describe your creative process in developing the pieces for this exhibition, and discuss your diverse range of techniques?

Karma Bint Abbas: In the case of most of my works, I collect fabrics and materials that I find beautiful. Each new piece in a series is then created out of those materials. I usually just go for it and begin the piece, and most of the time I don’t end up following the original plan or vision I had in my mind. That’s what I find beautiful about the process.

Clare Gemima: How do you see art as a means to bridge cultural gaps and foster understanding, especially in the context of your exhibition’s theme?

Karma Bint Abbas: When someone outside of my culture visits my exhibition, I would like them to experience and feel another side to what they may believe life is like in my part of the world. There is also a common misconception that most Muslim and Arab women have no rights, and don’t feel safe and secure within their religion or environment. Even though that may be true in some cases, there is also a warm and safe side where family serves as one of the biggest parts within Arab communities.

Compared to American culture, an emphasis on family is much more prevalent, so for me building this body of work came from a very loving and safe place in my heart. That’s how I feel about my home. To be able to experience something through an artist’s emotional mark-making, or to intentionally put effort into understanding the lives and journeys of others is one of the most powerful things art can do.

Islamic Prayer Mat by Karma Bint Abbas
Islamic Prayer Mat, 2022. Colored pencil on paper. 54×70 cm. Photo courtesy of EV Gallery.

Clare Gemima: Is there a personal connection or story behind your choice to explore this theme, or does it relate to your own experiences with Islam and art? How has your artistic style evolved throughout your career, and how does the work in this exhibition represent a milestone or departure from your previous work?

Karma Bint Abbas: To me personally, when I left the Middle East and moved to the US, I slowly started finding myself being drawn to my culture even more than I was when I was living in the Arab world. I’m not sure if it was related to being homesick, but I found myself listening to more Arabic music, and creating art about home which I never used to do. I also found myself learning more about Islam, and finding comfort in a lot of the values it holds.

I wanted viewers to feel like they were floating or flying through the paintings, to get a glimpse of what finding peace in Islam, and my home feels like.

I’m also not the most traditional or committed Muslim, but I do take what I like about the religion and find comfort in it. Growing up I had a lot of learning difficulties at school, and I always felt slower than everyone else. I always felt the need to prove myself, and art was always the one thing that I felt good at. It gave me confidence and distracted me from so many difficult things.

As a child, I was always drawing little houses and magical spaces using the same pastel palette. Then, as I got a little older in middle school and high school, I moved onto more traditional and academic drawings. After a few years of living in New York, I no longer feel homesick, but I still like exploring the idea of home and what it means to me and others.

Clare Gemima: Can you describe the arrangement of your artwork within EV Gallery? How does the installation of your exhibition enhance its overall narrative?

Karma Bint Abbas: I wanted viewers to feel like they were floating or flying through the paintings, to get a glimpse of what finding peace in Islam, and my home feels like. I really wanted to create this dream-like and whimsical experience, mirroring feelings of a sweet memory. Clear but unclear, far but near, safe and familiar, yet blurry.

“Bridging Hearts: Uncovering Islam’s Harmony” will run from September 23–October 5, 2023 at EV Gallery. For more information about the gallery, please visit them on Instagram