HUMA BHABHA, Installation view of “Unnatural Histories” at MoMA PS1, New York, 2012. Photo by Matthew Septimus. Courtesy MoMA PS1, New York.

Unnatural Histories

Huma Bhabha

USA Pakistan
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Pakistani-born artist Huma Bhabha is known for her figurative, totemic sculptures created from found and discarded materials. “Unnatural Histories,” Bhabha’s first solo museum show in New York, featured 30 of her recent sculptures, along with a dozen collage-drawings, displayed across the third floor of MoMA PS1. Referencing classical figurative traditions of ancient Greek and African sculptures, as well as interpretations of these art forms by such modern masters as Picasso and Giacometti, Bhabha’s sculptural works are hybrid figures that meld dissected and disembodied body-like parts with various salvaged objects.

In the courtyard leading to the main building of MoMA PS1, viewers were greeted by two eight-foot-tall bronze statues, entitled God of Some Things (2012) and Ghost of Humankindness (2011). The former resembles a carved wood sculpture, and its naked, nubile subject seems to depict a culturally ambiguous fertility goddess. Ghost of Humankindness is an eerie, robot-like statue that appears, at a glance, to be constructed of vertically stacked styrofoam packing blocks, with a crumbling, clay-like mask fitted on the top piece as if it were a face. Together, the sculptures were like monuments—one from the ancient past and the other from a dystopian future—guarding the front entrance to the museum, as if it were a shrine or tomb.

Upon entering the gallery space, viewers were met with Unnatural Histories (2012), a tower of entwined styrofoam, wire mesh and clay. Grotesque strands of brown clay cling onto the vertical pile of clutter, like ivy scaling a tree. Propped up around the back is a life-size photo cutout of a man wielding a megaphone, while leading to the sculpture is a dirt path, made from clay, wire mesh and a cut-up tire. On the styrofoam base of the sculpture is a pen drawing of a face of a man—his identity and connection to the sculpture is left unknown. This haunting totem of detritus, a shrine of found materials, seems to be a monument to human life, or to a bygone civilization in a postapocalyptic landscape.

A quiet standout of the exhibition was an untitled clay and plastic piece from 2005. In contrast to the majority of displayed works—which were visually assorted, styrofoam-based sculptures—this piece is relatively minimal, comprised of a mound that seems to be encased in a black garbage bag, with a pair of clay arms stretching out from one end. It is reminiscent of a woman in a burqa, perhaps kneeling on the floor in prayer; yet the garbage-bag-like material and suggestion of a human figure also evoke the idea of a mutilated and dumped body—a morbid association provoked by images in the mass media. The sculpture is intriguing in its ambiguity, existing as a representation of both reverence and disregard for human life.

Hung on the gallery walls, surrounding the sculptures, were Bhabha’s collage-drawings. Each features an outline of a skeletal head, some of which are layered over images of desolate landscapes. The drawings, a few of which are large in scale, utilize streaks of vibrant color that are less evident in the sculptural works. An untitled collage-drawing from 2012, created with ink, pastel and acrylic on paper, features a thick, blue outline of a skull drawn on a muddied background. On the top right corner, overlapping the eye sockets of the skull, is a bright-pink heart shape—an unexpected, playful touch to the otherwise morbid subject. Many of the drawings are reminiscent of the festive, skeleton imagery surrounding Día de los Muertos—a Mexican holiday that celebrates the remembrance of friends and family members who have died—and were a seemingly less cynical counterpart to the postapocalyptic sculptures that dominated the exhibition.

Huma Bhabha’s artworks reference and incorporate various traditional cultures and art forms, while simultaneously visualizing a possible, precarious fate awaiting future civilizations. There is a raw element to the neoprimitive totems, sculptures and collage-drawings featured in “Unnatural Histories”—they paint a picture of a future that is dilapidated and alien, but also mysterious and curious.