Best known for her raw sculptures of fragmented bodies assembled from detritus and clay, Huma Bhabha makes mythological figures that mix aspects of Eastern and Western art with influences from science fiction. Tapped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its annual Roof Garden Commission, the Pakistan-born, Poughkeepsie-based artist has created two monumental bronzes, which construct a socially engaging narrative high above the city’s streets. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster spoke with the artist to get the backstory on her highly imaginative rooftop show.
When did you first start making the kind of sculptural figures like the ones that you are showing on the roof of the Met?
I started assemblage work, which didn’t include the clay elements yet, when I first graduated from Columbia University in the early-‘90s and moved into my own studio in downtown New York. My work at that time was based on collecting materials and exploring how to get the work off the wall and onto the floor.
Had you studied sculpture in school, at the Rhode Island School of Design or during graduate school at Columbia?
No, it was just something that slowly evolved because of my preference for choosing different materials to work with even if I was working on the wall. I had started using fabric and feathers and other materials in my paintings. There was a curiosity in me and a natural inclination for materiality, but it happened naturally. I had to develop my own ways of making sculpture.
How did you plan your project for the Met’s Roof Garden?
Once it was all confirmed I made some drawings, and being a figurative sculptor I had various ideas for two or three sculptures on the roof. After visiting a few times, I realized that I wanted to make them monumental, which is something I hadn’t previously been able to do. I realized that two large sculptures, from the ones that I was considering, would be sufficient. I made the final drawings, which were approved, and then I went from there.
What are the art historical references in the two big sculptures that you’re presenting?
My interest in art history and the history of sculpture already brings a lot of influences into my work, but they are not discernable influences. I approach things in a visual way and in a cinematic way, but when I am thinking about certain ways of making sculpture it’s more about a digested understanding of works that I like. I have more of a passionate approach, where things just come together, even though I’m thinking about many things.
Are you drawing on sources from within the museum?
Not specifically, but in terms of these two works one could think of classical Renaissance sculpture or Egyptian sculpture and some aspects of African sculpture. At the same time, they are my creations so they don’t necessarily look like any works in the museum. I basically wanted them to be signature works.
Why did you want them to be monumental in scale?
I don’t normally make monumental work, but this was my one opportunity to do it. My works are usually more human in scale and shown on plinths. I wanted to approach the roof garden in a theatrical way by treating it like a gigantic pedestal for the sculptures. At the same time, I wanted to treat it as a stage with the two sculptures being the actors, while taking a kind of cinematic approach. And because it’s the roof and you’re looking at the park and New York City around you, I also think of it as a landing pad, where the sculptures—without pedestals—feel as though they have landed there.
You also site film references in your past work. What are the ones here?
There is a very strong cinematic element. There’s no specific one, as again there is no specific sculptural reference. Once you do experience them as potential characters out of a movie, you realize that this could be a set for a movie.
The title of the show We Come in Peace is also the title of a 12-foot tall sculpture of a standing or walking figure. What does the figure signify?
There are certain things that I want to leave open because the sculptural language between the two figures is quite loaded. The title is taken from a science-fiction movie. I’m interested in science fiction and the cinematic and in creating some kind of a narrative or story. The installation is titled We Come in Peace and one of the sculptures is a multi-headed figure—it’s not just one being, which is why it’s “We” Come in Peace. It’s also about how we respond to things that we don’t already know or are not used to being around. When they state that phrase we relax.
The five-faced head seems to suggest that this figure is a monster, a kind of Frankenstein character, which is reinforced by it’s huge, co-joined body. Is it a demonic or reverent figure?
I think that will have to be decided by the spectator, but because of their extreme size and strong presence both figures seem like gods. The curator has referred to the situation almost like a first contact in her catalogue text. Considering the roof, the skyline and the sky above, they could be aliens. They are other entities because they don’t look human or feel that way.
Is Benaam—your 18-foot long sculpture of a draped, prostrate figure—a sphinx, a person praying or a person in a body bag?
It could be all three. I want all of these things to come to mind without putting one away.
From what language does the title originate and what does it infer?
The title means the “unnamed” in Urdu, which is spoken in Pakistan and Northern India.
This a recurring piece for you, in different versions over the years, right? Why does it keep journeying with you?
Because the times we live in don’t seem to change. When I first made this piece in 2005 it was a very strong reaction to what was happening and it’s still happening. It some ways it’s an anti-war statement and we remain in an ongoing time of war.
Do these figures have genders or nationalities?
No, you cannot see the features of the covered one and the standing figure is multi-gendered—it’s a hermaphrodite, which is something that I like to include in most of my sculptures, which gives me more room to explore. They don’t have nationalities.
What materials have you employed in the making of these works?
Benaam has a wooden structure (before it goes to the foundry for bronzing) and plastic and clay for its hands and tail. The standing figure is made up of cork and blue and pink construction Styrofoam. The original was painted with acrylics, oil sticks and paint that gets transformed into a coloured figure with patina while Benaam is a painted bronze, with patina, too. In order to know that the sizes of the sculptures would be successful, I first made them to scale in my studio.
What’s the appeal of cheap materials (such as Styrofoam, plastic, cork, clay, chicken wire and junk) for you?
When I graduated from Columbia with my MFA I didn’t have much money, but still wanted to make work. Working with assemblage meant that anything could be included, and in New York you can find a lot of discarded materials on the street. Initially it all came out of picking and using things in a certain way. There are a lot of artists who have worked this way, which is like an alchemical change.
How did you become drawn to an aesthetic of destruction?
You see a lot of it. You see images of it. Sometimes you see it for yourself, depending where you go. It’s something that you can’t avoid.
What’s your aim with this cultural and material mix?
It’s the way that I feel comfortable making figures, making these things. The reason that I started feeling confident making figures was because of looking at sculpture so much and responding to what I had seen and what I enjoy and then trying to see if I could do the same thing. Obviously, what I make looks quite different.
What are the social and political concerns implied with these figures and in their interaction on the roof?
As an artist you don’t have the power to make change or do much, but you can bear witness to your time. That’s all I would like to say because I don’t want to set a preconceived idea in place. It’s better that each viewer’s interpretation happens in a natural way.
Are the viewers having an interaction with the other?
I hope so. In fact, that would be a better way to address the previous question.
You normally display your sculptures on platforms and plinths, which become an integral part of the works. Why did you abandon them here?
Because I didn’t need them. Removing the plinth changes the nature of the sculpture to something else. The building itself becomes the plinth.
You don’t seem to have much interest in technology. Is that true?
Yes, that true. We have to live with it, but I’m not interested in it as an art form.
Yet you are interested in science fiction, why so?
I’m interested in cinema and became interested in science fiction through it, as well as through television and the writings of Philip K. Dick, whom I consider a genius. It’s almost like he’s a prophet. What he was writing in the 1950s is reality now—not just in a technological sense, but in a cultural sense. He was talking about human nature. There are so many things that come up in his books that are true now, or have been for a while.
Is your vision apocalyptic?
I don’t think you can get away from that. You might try to, but there’s always a darkness. It may be more post-apocalyptic. It’s not an effect that I’m consciously trying to create. Sometimes things that you believe deep down just come out somehow and other people see it as that.
Are your works meant to span time?
Yes, I hope so, very much so. It’s exactly the type of things that I look at myself. If they do, it would mean that they are successful.
Portrait of Huma Bhabha, 2018. Photographed by Eileen Travell