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Huma Bhabha

Pakistani-American Sculptor
Born 1962, Karachi, Pakistan
Lives and works in New York

She works with mixed media, mostly everyday materials like clay, wood, chicken wire, burlap and Styrofoam. A new generation artist, Bhabha specializes in figurative sculptures and occasionally experiments with painting and printmaking as well.

Education

1989

MFA, Columbia University, New York, USA

1985

BFA Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, USA

 

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Huma Bhabha

Hybrid face sculptures form the visual keystone to her practice

Bizarre, grotesque and entropic are some of the words that are used to describe Huma Bhabha’s artworks. Disfigured faces constructed with a variety of materials such as cork, chicken wire and Styrofoam recur in her works and have come to define her distinctive style in figurative sculptures. For instance her installation Bumps in the Road, 2008, consists of a large head with wide metal eyes, patchy caked skin on wire mesh and a wide, gaping jaw with charred teeth. This peculiar figure is placed next to a pair of wooden sticks on metallic feet. The “bumps” in the title can be interpreted as a euphemism for landmines scattered on a road that these two figures seem to be on.

Bhabha’s monstrous faces, seen in both her sculptures and paintings represent survivors of the evils of mankind. It appears as if the artist is inviting the viewer to investigate these figures and see if one can recognize them, or oneself in them.

Huma Bhabha, Bumps in the Road, 2008, clay, wood, wire, styrofoam, metal studs, acrylic paint, cast iron, burlap, newsprint, sand and ash, 60 1/2 x 66 1/4 x 80 1/4”

The handling of materials is often violent, creating figures that are disfigured

Her sculptures or installations may seem quirky from afar but on close inspection, her ‘assemblages’ reveal the process of violent handling. Melted, burned, twisted, broken faces and figures wobbling on constructed metal legs assembled together in a raw industrial manner are meant to bring out Bhabha’s preoccupation with human impermanence. She stretches the boundaries of human form with her bodiless faces and dissymmetrical figures, totally throwing caution to the winds as far as traditional aesthetics is concerned. But under all the brutal handling of materials, her pieces have an odd post-apocalyptic charm. In fact according to her, some of them, especially the grotesque faces were meant to be humourous. And although the ‘distressed’ material in her sculptures can embody paranoia, trauma and catastrophe – it also symbolizes a sense of renewal.

Huma Bhabha, The Orientalist (detail), 2007, bronze.

She reuses everyday materials found in the garbage to construct her artworks

The lack of money and space in her childhood steered Bhabha towards using affordable and cheap materials in her work. Later it came to represent much more than that as her characteristic style evolved. Construction materials, chicken wire, Styrofoam, burlap are all objects that often end up as waste. When seen in an artwork, as part of an exhibition space, they have the peculiar effect of transporting the viewer to a garbage dump. These mundane objects come alive through her sculptures, which she sometimes feels are more like ‘characters’. These characters are survivors, who even with their missing legs and disfigured faces survive the space that they now inhabit in the art world.

Huma Bhabha, Sell the House, 2005

Huma Bhabha, Waiting for a Friend, 2007

Bhabha's style is deceptive, hideousness masking the actual intent

While her sculptures often look like leftover survivors from an explosion, Bhabha is also known to create sculptures that resemble archaic totemic figures from ancient civilizations. For instance a lot of her figures have postures identical to the Greek kouri, or Indian and Egyptian sculptures. African Art, works of Picasso and Giacometti among others have influenced her works, but the result is visibly different because of the materials she uses. What seems like age-old rock could be burned and blackened wood on closer inspection. These materials give actual meaning to the works and not what they seem to resemble.

Figures built with Styrofoam like A.B., 2006, that appears to be a bizarre structure is actually an allusion to the bronze casting process. The roughly hewn clay face sitting atop a pillar of Styrofoam originally meant for storage or packing fits convincingly into the idea of a cast and painted bronze. It is posturing as the original, but actually questions the casting process itself, and conventions regarding what is considered ‘high’ or ‘low’ art.

Huma Bhabha, A.B., 2006, painted bronze

Her works speak for themselves and are not always politically inclined

The hideous sculptures coupled with her Pakistani origin often confuse people when they try to search for political linkages in her art. Bhabha denies this. She says, “People see a political element to the work. It’s not my intention. They see more than what I initially had in mind.”

But despite her claims to the contrary there is a strong undercurrent of issues relating to war and politics of the third world in her work. One of her first clay sculptures, Untitled, 2002, was a memorial for war victims in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a figure lying prostate with two hands protruding from the front and a trail of air-dry clay at the back from under a black trash bag. The bag could be interpreted both as a burqa of a woman praying, or conversely, a body bag.

Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2002

Bibliography