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HUMA BHABHABenaam, 2018. Painted and patinated bronze, 139.7 × 147.3 × 457.2 cm. Installation view of “They Live” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2019. Photo by Natasha Moustache. Courtesy Institute of Contemporary Art. 

They Live

Huma Bhabha

Also available in:  Chinese

The ominously titled “They Live,” referencing the eponymous 1988 cult alien-invasion film, was Huma Bhabha’s largest survey to date, showcasing the Pakistani-American artist’s three-dimensional works, photography, and drawings from the past two decades. These include sculptures that resemble religious icons, ritual objects or props from sci-fi films, most made with scavenged materials. Simultaneously evoking a distant, more spiritual-centered past and a postapocalyptic, urban wasteland, “They Live” was an exhibition that looked deeply, into both the past and the future.

Sitting sentinel at the entrance was The Orientalist (2007). From afar, the cyborg-esque, bronze figure, on an artificially weathered pedestal suggesting exposure to the elements for millennia, calls to mind the enthroned granite sculptures of ancient Egypt. Up close, however, its coarse surface, bony legs and charred face evoke a corpse. One of its hands clutches the edge of the armrest as if it’s poised to rise at any moment, while the fixtures in the hollow of its torso, resembling internal organs made of machine parts, further indicate the possibility of movement. Caught between grandeur and decay, stillness and animation, The Orientalist grips the viewer’s imagination. Yet its title seemingly admits that the work doesn’t so much quell as fuel Western fantasies of the Orient. The seated figure doesn’t belong to the ancient past it references; it cannot correct misperceptions about art in Egypt or indeed any part of the world. Rather, it is a challenge to examine the framework through which we approach art—one that set the tone for the rest of the show.

Cordoned off in its own room was the monumental Benaam (2018) (Urdu for “nameless”), clad in black plastic bags and bowing down in a posture of worship. Only as one approaches Benaam, the size of one’s feet barely reaching the length of its fingers, does the strangeness sink in. Sculptures of this size tend to elicit a sense of awe. Here, however, the sculpture is on all fours, supplicating itself to the viewer. Its pinkish hands, splayed on the ground, look weathered and scarred, speaking to a history of pain. Part of Bhabha’s 2018 commission for the Metropolitan Museum’s rooftop garden in New York, the four-meter-long sculpture originally bowed not for the gallery-goer, but toward We Come in Peace (2018), a towering, four-faced, monstrous figure that is absent in this exhibition. Since as early as 2001, with the inception of the United States’ “war on terror,” Bhabha has made versions of the same work, all in response to the conflict in the Middle East. Ostensibly a play on the stereotypical alien encounter, the work nevertheless asks a more serious question: in the face of terror, which god can one turn to?

The last section of the show featured a collection of sculptures that appear to be made of stone or charred wood, but are in fact formed from cork. Castle of the Daughter (2016) is a blown-up version of a fertility figurine recalling the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. The four-faced Waiting for Another Game (2018) closely resembles a bullet-ridden We Come in Peace. These sculptures are painted in neon greens and pastel pinks, with haphazardly spray-painted black and white lines. They look like idols ravaged by time, then irreparably desecrated by some bored teen with paint canisters—cultural artifacts damaged by both humans and nature. Art and destruction often run parallel. In taking on the roles of creator and iconoclast, Bhabha shows how art can be given new meaning through destruction.

On my way home from the exhibition, I saw a neon-pink arrow sprayed onto the tarmac footpath, and I thought it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Bhabha’s show. “They Live” looked to the ancient past and the imagined future. But perhaps it also asked us to find the mythical within our fragile present.

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