Aliens, golems, and androids: a venture into twenty-five years of the sculptor’s work.
Huma Bhabha: They Live, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston,
25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, through May 27, 2019
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Huma Bhabha was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to the US in 1981 to study painting and printmaking. She only turned to sculpture later, developing her approach without formal training in the medium save for a period when she was employed by a taxidermist. This trajectory might explain how raw and unrefined her art seems—how “primitive,” to use an unfashionable term, but one she knowingly plays with. While she’s been working steadily since the early 1990s—producing strangely hybrid, syncretic, figurative sculptures, drawings, prints, and doctored photographs—it is only recently that she has gained significant attention, first with her exhibition We Come in Peace installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden in the summer of 2018, and now with a major show at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Perhaps this is because we’ve caught up with her apocalyptic (but not humorless) vision of the world: as we all watch with horror while our planet falls apart, Bhabha’s art feels increasingly suitable to our time.
The ICA exhibition shares its title—They Live—with a 1988 sci-fi movie directed by John Carpenter, perfectly apt considering how many aliens, golems, Frankensteins, cyborgs, and DIY androids are present in the galleries. The sixty-two objects in the show, dating from 1994 to 2018, are organized not chronologically, but more or less according to the different modalities in Bhabha’s work—seated, standing, reclining. In the first room we find a series of masks she made in the mid-1990s that incorporate clay, rubber, hair and fiber, plastic tubing, fake teeth, and who knows what other kinds of materials—a striking feature of Bhabha’s work is her propensity to utilize whatever is at hand, engaging both additive methods (like assemblages of found objects or modeling) and subtractive ones (like carving) in a single piece. Such material hybridity suits the conceptual mishmash of her forms—these masks simultaneously recall African or Indigenous objects and analog B-movie special effects. One has a black, bendable exhaust pipe emerging from its mouth and entering back into its forehead and a thatch of Planet of the Apes–style fur framing its simian face; another has a hyena-like skull with a vulva on its forehead and narrow red plastic tubing creating feedback loops from eyes to temples, nostrils to mouth. There is a particularly alarming face whose eyes, nose, mouth, and ears are bloody gashes, and whose forehead, similarly lacerated, has been sutured together—the effect is that of a mutant neonate in the process of being rendered viable. Another is a sausage-like, mucousy head formed around a piece of corrugated black tubing like a kebab around a skewer, eyeless and with the merest bump for a nose, but with Halloween-store plastic fangs poking out of its mouth and electrical wires sprouting like whiskers from its chin.
Works like the larger-than-life-sized Sleeper (2005) and Tupac Amaru (2010) are standing figures composed in the first case of clay, wood, Styrofoam, paint, drywall, and in the second of these with the addition of steel, wire, pieces of lumber, fiberboard, animal horn, and even seed pods—an alchemical mixture of organic and industrial materials that together conjure a sense of corpses decomposed and then revived, their skeletons now replaced by a jury-rigged architecture. Sleeper has a human enough face, but when you walk around to the back you see his torso is a hollow scaffolding; his legs penetrate a wooden box that (along with the title of the work) evokes the gangster assassination technique of concrete shoes and sleeping with the fishes. “Tupac Amaru” is both the given name of the murdered rap icon and that of his namesake, an Incan leader who rebelled against the conquistadors; the figure so dubbed is an agglomeration of stacked cubic forms, with features like leg, ribcage, and torso drawn in charcoal with various degrees of realism. Three horizontal lines—slit eyes and mouth, like a cartoonish robot—delineate its bifurcated face. The back view is that of material decay, a shadowy head and torso spray-painted over an otherwise mostly hollowed out, eaten-away armature. The title of Ghost of Humankindness (2011), borrowed from a South Park episode, is a play on the phrase “the milk of human kindness,” a commodity in short supply in Bhabha’s strange, simultaneously pre- and post-historic, Mad Max universe. It, too, was concocted from ordinary ingredients (Styrofoam and clay), but, in another unexpected material gambit, the artist cast the object in bronze and then painted it to resemble the original, making it difficult to recognize what we’re looking at.
The centerpiece of the show, installed in a softly lit gallery, is the massive Benaam (2018), which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum. It represents a prone figure—in a pose of surrender, subjugation, or prayer—whose comically oversized hands stretch out in front, and who is trailed by a massing of what can only be described as turds, the sign of a body crumbling or shitting itself with fear. Most of the fifteen-foot-long sculpture is draped with what seems to be a garbage bag representing, perhaps, a burka or a cowl. The piece is cast bronze, painted to look—impossibly convincingly—like unfired clay and shiny plastic. The title means “unnamed” or “nameless”; a 2005 iteration of the piece, made at human scale, was intended as an homage to the Afghanis, Iraqis, and so many other civilians who have been killed in the Middle East and South Asia, whose worlds have been destroyed, by the ongoing US “war on terror”—a poignant counterpoint to the endless memorials to fallen solders that dot our landscapes.
The untitled 2005 version is present in the exhibition via a series of photographs Bhabha took that year, when she traveled to Karachi and placed the sculpture in various landscape settings around the city, bringing the victim back to the scene of the crime, as it were. She enacts a similar move toward propositional monuments in a 2007 series of Reconstructions, in which she inserts, in ink, imaginary sculptures onto photographs of stalled construction sites on the outskirts of Karachi. In doing so, she reimagines these sites of capitalism’s failure as plinths for the monuments to be built by a future world digging its way out of the mess we’ve made of the current one.
The final room of the show is filled with nine totem-like figures, ranging from about six to ten feet tall, composed primarily of cork and Styrofoam—Bhabha favors these because they are lightweight and easy to carve into; they have the advantage, too, of introducing a contrast between the natural and the deeply unnatural in their juxtaposition. The effigies, with their mostly squared-off, columnar bodies and four faces (one for each side), are burned, painted, overdrawn with oil stick, or slathered with nail polish, and their features are gouged out in a way that renders them monstrous caryatids or ogre-like kouroi or futuristic hermae—ancient figures made of modern materials showing us what will tie together our past, present, and future. The acrid, musty smell of scorched cork is apparent in the gallery, and lends a kind of immediacy to the work, making it hard to escape the fact that in Bhabha’s universe, the end of the world is not something that will happen in an unspecified future—the apocalypse is now, and perhaps always has been.
Aruna D’Souza is a writer based in Western Massachusetts. Her book, Whitewalling: Art, Race, and Protest in 3 Acts, was published by Badlands Unlimited in May 2018. She is editor of the forthcoming Lorraine O’Grady: Writing in Space, 1973–2019 (Duke University Press, 2019), and is a member of the advisory board of 4Columns.