Huma Bhabha – Lecturer (2010)

 

It would be easy to confuse this work with an archaeological object, a vestige of an ancient civilisation that belongs in a museum. The sculpture looks faded and has a damaged, rough surface, similar to weathered wood. Lecturer (2010), however, is made of bronze.

 

Huma Bhabha (Karachi, Pakistan, 1962 lives and works in Poughkeepsie, USA) grew up in Karachi and moved to the United States in 1981 to study art. She makes drawings, photographs and prints, but is known mainly for her sculptures, mostly in a figurative idiom, made from materials such as wire, clay, Styrofoam, fibreglass and insulation material. These materials are not only readily available but, more importantly, also reflect her geographical origins, Karachi, a metropolis in Pakistan, where people are constantly building, but the lack of money means that hardly anything is ever completed. Bhabha is now established internationally as an artist and she exhibits in major museums all over the world.

 

The human form is the central motif in Bhabha’s sculptures, as an embodiment of modern human life and, above all, suffering. Bhabha’s figures, walking, sitting, kneeling and bending forward, often appear terrifying, with monstrously deformed heads that are a cross between alien beings, skulls and apes. Decay, war, displacement – these are all frequently recurring themes in her body of work. Her native country and the turbulent Middle East, to which she frequently returns, play an important role in her work.

 

Bhabha’s figures, which are often life-size, appear half-decayed or damaged, but this is deceptive. Bhabha builds them very carefully, using cheap building materials and simple assembly techniques, in such a way that the handwork and construction remain visible. What the sculpture will depict or symbolise when it is finished remains unclear during the process of creation. The artist never has a predetermined plan and tells no specific story. The fact that the viewer can see how the work was made also prevents the idea of a fixed meaning and encourages interpretation. And Bhabha’s work offers many opportunities for speculation and association. Her work alludes not only to recent, modernist predecessors – it is reminiscent of works by Giacometti and Picasso – and does not even restrict itself to western sculptural art, but also contains references to such items as Egyptian votive statues, Roman grave monuments, African wood carvings, Haitian voodoo art, medieval relics and Native American totems. Bhabha makes use of all these ancient examples of human beings creating work in their own image, to express her feelings about her own era. That she – and we – have knowledge of this sculptural history is a result of the indestructible nature of the materials used back then. So it is all the more remarkable that Bhabha usually chooses to employ very fragile and perishable materials. Given their forbidding appearance, her works inevitably reflect the acceleration of decay. The Apocalypse is rapidly approaching.

 

However, for a number of years she has also worked in bronze, because of the great contrast this material offers. Lecturer is cast in ‘eternal bronze’ and yet its appearance does not bode well. The figure has a malevolent expression, which is reinforced by two deep furrows in the face. It could be a totem, but you can see all kinds of things in it, particularly when you view it from different angles. This is because Bhabha deliberately makes her sculptures in such a way that each side appears to be part of an entirely different work. In the tradition of classic sculpture, Bhabha forces the viewer to walk around her work – only then does it start to reveal its meanings.

 

Manon Braat / translation Laura Watkinson