In Conversation with Huma Bhabha
Interview by Marie-Pauline Cesari
Portraits by Yaël Temminck
Huma Bhabha is a Pakistani-American sculptor based in Poughkeepsie, New York. Through sculptures, works on paper and collages, she depicts the strangeness, vulnerability and fears of our contemporary world. We met her at the M Museum, in Leuven, where some of her artworks are on display in collaboration with MO.CO. Montpellier Contemporain. Discover our captivating conversation about her life, her inspirations, her methods and her distinct visual language.
Your mother was also an artist and helped you develop this passion. Does this transmission inspire you in your work?
My mother was a talented amateur artist. She encouraged my interest in art during my childhood through her art and books about art history. Art was important to her, whenever we would travel we would visit museums. My parents were very supportive of my wanting to become an artist.
You have studied engraving and painting, but you are best known for your sculptures. How does one move from one medium to another? Do you recommend studying sculpture or on the contrary, as you did, adopting this discipline without studying it at school?
I studied printmaking and painting in art school and didn’t start making sculpture till later. I became interested in assemblage and collage and was drawn to different materials and started incorporating three-dimensional elements into my paintings, e.g. feathers, scrap wood, found objects onto stretched fabric and gradually one thing led to another. I have been interested in portraiture since I was in high school, and that has now become more developed. I still draw on paper and photographs which I take, it is an essential part of my practice. I made my first clay foot in Guadalajara in 2001, and that led to other clay body part sculptures which I placed in different landscapes to photograph. Making sculpture evolved very naturally. The sculptures and drawings are not directly related, as in I don’t make drawings for the sculptures but working on them side by side has informed them in a more interesting and unpredictable way.
What are your major artistic influences and how have they shaped your work over the years?
I am influenced by many things, ancient Egyptian and African sculpture, modern and contemporary artists such as Picasso, Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys, as well as science fiction and horror films like Alienand Terminator and John Carpenter’s The Thing; the ancient empire of Gandhara (558-28 BC), where a hybrid form of sculpture evolved from being situated at the crossroads of Central Asia (modern day northwestern Pakistan). I have always found archaeological sites very romantic, and I love spending time with antiquities, but my work is firmly rooted in the present. I try to approach the creation of my work in a cinematic way, reimagining the past and the future.
Can you tell us about your creative process and how you choose the materials to make your creations?
I come from a place where almost nothing is thrown away, so I’ve always been drawn to the cheap and discarded.
The use of raw and found materials is an important characteristic of your work. What attracts you to these materials and how do they contribute to the meaning of your work? Is it also an environmental commitment to reuse?
The transformation of found materials into art is profound, it is also about practicality and elegance. Styrofoam is like marble for me but with no weight. I have been using disparate utilitarian materials for a long time because of my early interest in assemblage and collage. Using a combination of opposites informs the work in an architectural and organic way, while picking up on the inherent qualities of the different materials like cork, bronze, clay, tires, plaster, and paint and how they interact ultimately completing the story of my figures as beings existing between worlds.
Your sculptures and installations are often associated with themes such as science fiction and archaeology. Could you explain how these areas of interest manifest themselves in your work?
Science fiction and archaeology are avenues to explore the past and future allowing me to reflect the present in my work.
Your work often explores themes such as war, violence and memory. What is the role or art, toward these issues and do you think that it is essential for artists to address these matters?
I grew up in a place where the long term effects of colonialism and imperialism were very much on the surface. Being from a broken place, living in a breaking world and bearing witness to what you can’t change, it’s important to me that my work reflects that.
How does your personal experience and cultural background influence your art? Did your move from Karachi to the US influence your creative process?
All my life experiences inform my process. I have now lived in the United States longer than in Pakistan, so I feel comfortably fluent in American culture and art. I am interested in beauty, and my world does not include borders.
I could not avoid asking you about your experience with a taxidermist. I have also seen the recurrence of animals in your work, including a lot of collage of cute little pictures in your paintings. Is this connected with your experience as a taxidermist? Because they remind me these photos, we see in pet cemetery.
I love animals and the use of animal imagery seems appropriate as we are in the midst of a mass extinction event. The wild life calendars where the images come from are a cheap source for that kind of imagery.
While working at the taxidermy studio I learned a lot in terms of making armatures for my sculptures. What I liked most was that it had a small animal farm aspect to it with chickens, guinea hens, peacocks, golden pheasants, horses, and most importantly 3 dogs all running around free. I also collected a lot of refuse that they were throwing away, for example animal skulls and chopped off wolf legs that now reside in my studio like good luck charms. I was doing something so different that there was a sense of liberation from any expectations, which allowed me to experiment and make choices in my own work that I normally would not have done.
You do a lot of dialogue between death and life in your work, especially with animals. What messages or ideas do you want to convey through this dialogue?
The history of art is inextricably linked to life and death; funerary sculptures, totemic figures of people and animals: wild, agricultural, and domesticated, functional objects. I see myself as part of or a link in those ancient traditions. I am drawn to sculpture about death, and there is a lot of it!
Figurative iconography is a central element of your work. Why have you chosen to represent the human body in an often distorted or mutilated way, and what meaning does this have for you?
The “ruin effect” I use as a tool in my work was originally an accident of process. In my sculptures I work from the inside-out, focusing on the armature or skeleton and then building up the surface by incorporating found materials, cork, clay, adding paint, or oil stick.
Your work “We Come in Peace” was exhibited on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is one of the creations that made you very famous. Can you tell us more about this installation and the choice of location?
I was commissioned to create an installation on the Met Rooftop. The two monumental bronze figures exemplify my work and the materials I use. I think it struck a chord because it very significantly addressed militarism, which is something that is hardly ever addressed in the contemporary art world.
Your sculptures often seem to interact with the environment in which they are exhibited. How do you take space and context into account in your artistic process?
Space and context are critical to my process, starting with the plinths for each sculpture to the visual relationships between the works during installation. It all goes back to the cinematic.
You have exhibited your work in many countries around the world. How is your art received in different cultures and contexts? Are there any reactions or interpretations that have surprised you?
I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to show and travel. It is always very interesting to hear different responses to the work.
How do you want your work to resonate with the viewers and what emotions or ideas do you want to transmit through your art?
An exhibition is a stage. An implied narrative intent is offered as a challenge or invitation to activate the viewers imaginative impulses.
What future projects or directions do you plan to explore?
I have my first solo show at David Zwirner gallery in New York in the spring of 2024.