Mashing the Past and the Future Together

Review by Christine Vuegen
19 September 2023

Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2021, private collection, courtesy of the artist & Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, photo HV-studio

Huma Bhabha

Huma Bhabha’s exhibition ‘Livin’ Things’ at museum M Leuven is the artist’s first solo exhibition of this scale in Belgium, with work from 2009 to 2022. What follows is a conversation about the importance of materials and digesting influences, about art history and science fiction, Bhabha’s towering, totemic sculptures and her works on paper, which feature heads reminiscent of skulls, aliens and masks.

When it comes to materials and influences, Huma Bhabha (1962, currently living in Poughkeepsie, New York) seems insatiable: there’s Egyptian art, ancient Greek kouros sculptures, African sculptures, Picasso’s ethnic-influenced work, Beuys with his shamanism, temple guardian statues, Munch, Basquiat, a pinch of Giacometti and Medardo Rosso, extraterrestrial beings and monsters from science-fiction and horror films, characters from games that hark back to ancient cultures … On viewing her works, you are hit with a flash of associations — so many and so fast that you are almost bowled over. Looking at Bhabha’s work, you soon realise that you can never figure out exactly what it is her work is referring to; it remains ambiguous. In the end, you can only concede that something new has emerged. Which is all thanks to her surprising use of materials.

‘I like to recycle a lot,’ says Huma Bhabha. ‘Also, in Pakistan, you don’t throw anything away. It can be recycled and then sold it to somebody else, and so it’s that idea of not wasting. But, also, when you don’t have much money as a young artist, it’s a good way to develop a language of materials.’ Chicken wire, cork, crayons, lipstick, Styrofoam, wood, animal skulls, arms made of steel wire, plastic bags that used to contain clay now hanging like breasts or lungs inside a human form: the artist is gaining ground internationally with her assemblage-like sculptures and her sculptures in cork, sometimes cast in bronze and often painted, on self-made pedestals.

Eating, digesting and spitting out something of your own: in one way or another, her artistic practice applies the principle of cannibalism put forward by Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (‘Anthropophagic Manifesto’, 1928) with a view to thwarting oppression by foreign influences and colonialism. ‘It’s actually digesting it, looking at works that influence me, absorbing them, and then sort of processing what I have looked at,’ explains Bhabha. ‘And then it comes out very naturally in a different form that is hopefully powerful. Of course, it’s not so unplanned, but there is a lot of room for something to appear that is surprising.

‘[My works] have a lot of art-historical references and futuristic elements. It’s a formula of mashing the past and the future together, but very grounded in the now,’ Huma Bhabha stresses. ‘I do look at a lot of ancient art and how different cultures have used elements or materials to tell a story. I’m attracted to art that evokes deep feelings and emotions in the viewer. The materials are crucial. I’m an old-school sort of formal artist, in fact. I try to approach the work more formally. I look at everything, from pop culture to ancient sculpture to modernism, minimalism, contemporary art, films, books, different art forms. Yesterday I spoke about the drawings of Victor Hugo, which are also an inspiration. It almost looks like an accident, a spill: for example, your cup falls over, and what comes out of that? Suddenly, it becomes a new direction that the drawing is going in. I’m like a sponge; there’s always more to look at and to learn from. And I’m also very much aware of the state of the world and how we are dealing with the end of it.’

Indeed. Her sculptures often appear as if they have had to endure an awful lot or have survived some catastrophe. Is the work deliberately apocalyptic? ‘I live in upstate New York, and the week that I’ve been here in Belgium the air quality in New York has been apocalyptic. It’s happening every year, these extreme climate conditions. But I try not to be too explicit in the way I make the work. I like the idea of a little bit of mystery, which can open up many sorts of meanings. But, of course, it depends on who is looking at it.’

The work of Huma Bhabha is attracting growing attention. Next spring she will exhibit at David Zwirner, New York, for the first time. This interest in her work has come late, her first solo show having taken place in New York in 2004. She grew up in Pakistan, in Karachi, and moved to the U.S. to study art. She trained as a painter, not a sculptor. Two monumental bronze sculptures, a major commission for the artist, were placed in the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2018. The nearly four-metre-tall figure We Come in Peace, which would not be out of place in the fictional universe of H.P. Lovecraft, stands in front of the five-and-a-half-metre sculpture Benaam (meaning ‘nameless’ in Urdu, the official national language of Pakistan). The latter was a new version of what is probably her best-known early work, which is simultaneously reminiscent of a praying Muslim and a body bag. ‘It’s the way it should be understood,’ says Bhabha. ‘It’s the fourth iteration of that idea. The first three are untitled. The first one was made in 2002 and it was definitely a response to [the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq]. It can also be like a cocoon, where there is the idea of something regenerating inside that can hopefully rise up.’

The artist’s big breakthrough in Europe came perhaps when her work was selected for the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2015. Huma Bhabha had exhibited in Belgium before this: in 2010, work of hers was included in ‘Hareng Saur: Ensor and Contemporary Art’ at Ghent’s S.M.A.K. In 2015, WIELS director Dirk Snauwaert selected two of her sculptures for the group exhibition ‘Atopolis’ in Mons: What is Love, the figure with a green head that is also on display now, and a floor sculpture made of tattered car tyres. It was the car-tyre sculpture — she compared it to the Laocoön Group — that prompted me to visit her first solo show in Belgium at C L E A R I N G in Brussels that year. This would be followed in 2021 by her first solo show at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels. There are no car-tyre works on display at M Leuven; those are all located in the U.S. and, for budgetary reasons, all the pieces on display here are on loan from European countries. Which is not to say that the exhibition falls short in terms of scope. The arrangement here spans multiple rooms, and there are an additional four works placed elsewhere in the museum, in dialogue with the permanent collection.

‘I see them as having had a life, they are alive,’ Huma Bhabha says of her works. The exhibition title, ‘Livin’ Things’, came to her when she heard the song ‘Livin’ Thing’ (1976) by Electric Light Orchestra. The title may indicate that her art is a form of animism, that everything — really everything — is alive and has a soul. And animism is next to shamanism. Is that how she sees her artistic practice? ‘I hope it transmits some of that. But I think it’s the reaction of somebody who is looking at the work that brings out the qualities of animism more than me consciously making the work with that idea in mind.’

Let’s take a moment to consider Castle of the Daughter (2016), the ringleader of a monumental group of sculptures in the M Leuven’s main hall. It’s a statue of over two metres in height, with an upper body made of white polystyrene and two rose-pink breasts. From the side, several figures appear to merge together, as if it were one solidly proceeding figure, its movement depicted in the manner of the Futurists. A feminist narrative? ‘The title actually comes from a castle ruin near the ancient city of Balkh in Afghanistan,’ Huma Bhabha explains. ‘I found this picture of the castle ruins, and the title translates to “a castle of the daughter”. So the daughter was important. In the ancient East and Middle East, there were more matriarchal cultures and they had powerful female gods.’

The Ambitious One (2021) is a more squat, dark brown female figure in cork, with body contours carved into it and some colour accents applied with oil stick and lipstick. Cork is a light and soft material that the artist has been working with since 2008. It’s a misleading material that masquerades as something heavy and strong, like charred wood or bronze. Who is ambitious, I ask, the figure or the material that aspires to be bronze? ‘I think it’s the power of the material that is making it,’ Huma Bhabha smiles. ‘The title usually comes towards the end, as the work is being finished — the title as a final touch. My titles come from various sources: from conversations, from a line in a book, poetry, movies; or I simply make them up.’

When I ask if her work draws influences from Karachi, the place where she grew up, Huma Bhabha nods: ‘It does. I started by taking photographs in Karachi because I was most familiar with that desert landscape. It was inspiring me to draw in a certain way and made its way into my work.’

The artist has a number of drawn and painted works on paper, specifically on landscape photos taken by herself. I see a head that clearly alludes to Munch’s The Scream. What do all those heads express? It’s hard to know exactly; they can come across as simultaneously demonic, frightening, funny and tender. Often pasted in are images of dogs and other animals, cut out of calendars and magazines. Are animals used as mediators between man and nature, the physical and the spiritual world, as Joseph Beuys did with the coyote and the hare? ‘I’m a big fan of Beuys, and I think in many ways he has been an important influence,’ Huma Bhabha replies. ‘I am an animal lover, and, whenever I see animals used in art, it has always been interesting to me to try to do that myself. Besides that, there’s the fact that we are living in a very dangerous moment of ecological disaster. I think that makes you more aware of what we are going to lose and what is already extinct…’

Animals, humans and monsters all intermingle in the work. From the painted bronze head of A Thousand Faces to the large figures and works on paper, the monstrous is never far away. What kind of monsters appeal most to the artist? Scary monsters? Or the more tragic and endearing kind, like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in the novel by Mary Shelley or the Elephant Man in David Lynch’s film of the same name? ‘I love that film,’ she says of The Elephant Man, smiling. ‘It makes you cry, to think humans are monstrous like that, very passionate and loving, but at the same time extremely destructive. Frankenstein’s monster is my hero. I watch a lot of science fiction and horror; these genres fascinate me. Particularly popular classic films from the 80s and earlier, like The Thing and Alien. At the same time, I look at films from the 1940s, the golden age of cinema. In the end, it comes down to a visual experience.’

The title ‘Livin’ Things’ is an apt one. That’s what we’re dealing with here. But the skull-like heads in her drawings seem, just as the animal skulls in her sculptures, to broach the topic of death. ‘There is a lot of work on death,’ notes Huma Bhabha. ‘And death is certainly the catalyst for many monuments. I’m also interested in sarcophagus art, you can see the [sculpture Rising] is a rising sarcophagus. I try to find different ways of interpreting the idea of using the sarcophagus and relating it to the present moment, where endless warfare and militarism perpetuate the cycle of death. So I can’t really escape it. As you get older, it also becomes part of your personal experience with friends or within your family. Death has always been connected with making art; it’s an important part of art history.’

Huma Bhabha’s art is quite dark, but there is humour in it. From a certain angle, a sculpture can suddenly take on an amusing, even cartoonish quality. One piece of hers is topped with an animal’s jawbone pointing upwards — an inside-out head, she says. On second viewing, it made me chuckle when I noticed that the back of this ‘head’ still had all its teeth. How would she describe the humour in her work? ‘Grotesque,’ she promptly replies. ‘I like the grotesque, because it helps me to be creative. So, it’s ultimately all about what makes my creativity more fluid. When you’re making work that clearly has a heaviness and a darkness, it’s always nice to have a little bit of relief. Laughter is a healthy form of relief for pent-up feelings. Humour creates balance. When I’m watching movies, that can be slapstick, but even slapstick is very sophisticated. [Humour] adds another layer of complexity. My desire is to achieve a range of emotion in the work.’

Translated by Jonathan Beaton