Multiple Identities in Huma Bhabha’s Art
The Contemporary Austin
by Sumaiya Malik
In 2009, I heard novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah, talk about how people have multiple identities. At that time in my life, I had been looking for a reflection of my identity in other people, as though finding it would give me a sense of belonging. That day, however, hearing Adichie, I suddenly felt as though I belonged. I realized, I too had multiple identities. I had multiple reflections. From then, I began seeing my reflection in whomever I met and whatever I did.
That same sense of having multiple reflections came to me again, this time when I saw the work of New York based artist Huma Bhabha. Bhabha’s pieces have so many hidden layers and identities, that anyone can find a piece of themselves in the artist’s work.
Trained as a painter and printmaker at the Rhode Island School of Design and Columbia University, Bhabha thinks of herself as a sculptor. Though born in Pakistan in 1962, Bhabha spent her adult life in the U.S., remaining here once her studies ended. “She is pulling from cultures all over the world,” says Julia V. Hendrickson, the Associate Curator at the Contemporary Austin who curated Bhabha’s exhibit at the Contemporary Austin.
It’s easy to lose oneself in Bhabha’s prints. In one untitled piece, which will be on exhibit, there is an abandoned building heavily worked upon with pen and ink, so much so that the final image is a haunting graffiti face with a landscape from Bhabha’s childhood as its eyes. In another, one sees the drawing of a face with images of dogs as eyes. Her choice here is poignant, as Bhabha admires dogs for their ability to really master the art of seeing.
Even Austin as a city will find a common ground in Bhabha’s work. “One connection between Huma’s work and Austin…is the continual state of architectural decay and rebuilding,” says Hendrickson. “Austin’s skyline is filled with new buildings going up in order to meet the influx of people coming here, with old and historic building spaces for artists or low income housing being destroyed.” Hendrickson is excited to see Bhabha come to Austin. Bhabha had been on her radar since Hendrickson saw the artist’s exhibition in Chicago in 2011. In fact, the museum had approached Bhabha long before her career skyrocketed with the solo exhibit at rooftop Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City called We Come in Peace.
God of Some Things, Bhabha’s sculpture which will be at Laguna Gloria, resembles the figure at the Met. It’s a totem pole like “stylized figure with flattened breasts and a Princess Leia hairdo emerging from a rectangular solid” said art critic Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. It is cast in bronze but looks like a crumbling clay depiction of a decaying human race — an aftermath of an apocalypse in prehistoric times. Bhabha calls it god, but does not say where or when it is situated. It could be male or female, come from anywhere or anytime. The way it looks and the ideas it conveys are universal.
Bhabha’s sculptures include found materials, including styrofoam, cork, rubber, paper, wire and clay. She occasionally incorporates objects given to her by other people into her art work. Many of these sculptures are cast in bronze. She is equally detailed in her works on paper where she creates pastel drawings, eerie photographic collages and prints that stay in one’s mind.
Her work went through a shift around 2000. In an interview for Art in America, she recalled that until then her process had always had “a beginning, middle and end.” More recently, though, she began stopping when she “noticed something interesting.” According to Bhabha, “this discovery changed [her] work—by leaving things more open and raw, [she] was leaving more places for the viewer to enter” (as quoted for Art in America).
Needless to say, Huma Bhabha makes an impact. Her show is a must-see.
Bhabha’s work — 10 prints, 7 collages 4 works on paper and 7 sculptures — will be on display at the Contemporary Austin starting on September 15. There will be an indoor exhibit with pieces from 2009 to 2016 at the Jones Center, and a larger than life bronze sculpture, God of Some Things, at Laguna Gloria.