By HG Masters
Huma Bhabha’s ragged sculptures and photographs belong to a world stripped of cultural niceties. This lends the Karachi-born artist’s work the aura of both a post-apocalyptic and an ancient civilization. Incorporating discarded modern objects (polystyrene packaging containers, wooden chairs, metal pipes) and elementary sculptural materials (chicken wire, air-dried clay), Bhabha’s rudimentary figures, or parts thereof, evoke the totems used throughout history in rituals to venerate deities and powerful leaders and to appease the specter of death. There’s nothing naive about Bhabha’s maturing output, however, as evident in three concurrent exhibitions at New York’s Salon 94, Salon 94 Freemans and ATM Gallery. Through her latest body of work, Bhabha conducted an anthropological examination of an imagined civilization, investigating how its remains can be understood.
At Salon 94, a single sculpture, “. . .And in the track of a hundred thousand years, out of the heart of dust / Hope sprang again, like greenness,” (2007) filled the main gallery. Named for lines from The Ruba’iyat by 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, the sculpture is comprised of an ash-caked dais made from wooden planks, on which reside two figures facing away from one another. Resting on a polystyrene plinth, the more feminine effigy has a modeled-clay face resting on top of a blackened body of assorted materials. The other, a wizened creature, perches on a disused chair; a white beard hangs from its owlish visage, crudely described in clay-caked wire with blackened ovals for eyes. Bhabha situates these roughly hewn icons among the remnants of inscrutable activities—sawdust littered around a rusted pipe and charred arrangements of foam chunks—as if the whole structure were recently unearthed.
In contrast, the three sculptures at Salon 94 Freemans stand alone, recalling a classical museum approach to the presentation of cultural artifacts. A full-sized sarcophagus, The Immortal Story (2007), depicting the deceased figure, occupied the center of the room. Noting the inclusion of a large tusk near the figure’s neck, many critics conjectured that the man had been part elephant, typical of the interpretive leaps of judgment Bhabha’s idiosyncratic works inspire. Nearby, a small bust, They Don’t Speak (2007), and two large feet, Untitled (2007), were each presented on pedestals. The gargantuan clay-covered wire feet, arranged mid-stride, were the subject of large-scale photographs at ATM Gallery. In these works, Bhabha sites the feet at the seashore and in a scraggy landscape at sunset, bathing her sculptures in warm orange light. Here, employing a classic Hollywood trope, Bhabha verges on the parodic. The images serve to undermine the possibility that Bhabha’s sculptures spring from a deeply personal mythology.
Instead, Bhabha consciously attempts to expand the horizons of present-day culture by bridging contemporary art practice with ancient ritual objects. Her suite of exhibitions also raises questions about how to understand objects from outside a familiar cultural context: whether they are best understood in their original context (as postulated in “. . .And in the track”), in a supposedly neutral setting (at Freemans) or in a dramatic mise-en-scène (as in the photographs at ATM Gallery). In contrast to contemporary art that addresses the cultural context in which it operates, Bhabha’s work occupies a paradoxical position. Though they are objects from an imaginary, unknowable culture, they echo the fundamental concerns of our own.