Huma Bhabha was born in 1962 in Karachi, Pakistan, and currently lives and works in Poughkeepsie, New York. Most recently, she was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial and participated in an exhibition of sculpture at City Hall Park in New York organized by the Public Art Fund. In 2008 she participated in the 7th Gwangju Biennale in Gwangju, Korea, and received the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Emerging Artist Award. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally, including in group exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium; MoMA PS1, New York; Royal Academy of Arts, London; New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and Arena Mexico Arte Contemporaneo in Guadalajara, Mexico.
ArtNow: Is it true that you started your career as a painter and later veered towards installation and sculpture? Do these changes occur as a result of events or is it a more natural progression?
HB: I actually got my BFA in Printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design, and was experimenting with collage. Then later at Columbia University I began stretching fabric on stretchers and using feathers and other found objects and it was working with non-conventional materials that the work evolved three dimensionally from the wall onto the floor. Sometimes it takes a while before you realize what you’re good at.
AN: Why does detritus fascinate you? Why are found objects the tools with which you realize your ideas?
HB: It began for practical reasons…not having much money… and New York City is a great place for finding stuff…people throw out amazing things. On one hand my use of materials relates to artists like Robert Rauschenberg and the history of assemblage and found objects, but I also see the use of discarded materials relating to how, in places like Pakistan, everything is used or saved no matter how seemingly useless, whereas, in a place like America, almost everything is discarded once it is no longer brand new. And I also feel there is a lot of emotion and history in these forgotten and discarded materials
AN: There is a sinister element to your work which is more akin to the preternatural and the bizarre rather than the grotesque. Where does that come from?
HB: I think the appearances of my figures has a lot to do with the materials I use…combining found elements with modeled clay or carving cork or Styrofoam (instead of marble or wood)…naturally leads to a kind of Frankenstein monster appearance which to me has its own beauty. I have always been fascinated by sci-fi and horror and I guess that is the pop element in the work.
AN: When you started working as an artist in the US, were you viewed through the lens of exoticism? How do you see yourself in the eyes of the American art receiving public?
HB: I don’t consider myself that fascinating and my work even as a student was never based on my ethnic identity and in the early ‘90s there was a lot of that going on in New York…as a result people found my work confusing. I think where I’m from is always present in the work without highlighting it to the point where the work becomes one- dimensional.
AN: Are there any elements in your work that partake of the culture you were raised in? Diasporic artists like Shazia Sikander and Faiza Butt borrow elements of their iconography and vocabulary from their traditions. Do you avoid any such references?
HB: I think it’s great that the international success of artists like Shazia Sikander have created so many opportunities for Pakistani artists, but the way my work connects to Pakistan’s culture and history is in a more general way in that I am just as interested in ruins and ancient art from all over, such as Egypt, Mexico, Cambodia, Africa…ancient vs. urban ruins exist all over the world.
AN: The 2008 Aldrich Museum award for Emerging Artist was a great feat for a Pakistani born artist. What was the work that won you the award?
HB: The sculpture is called “Bumps in the Road”, 2008. The idea of piece started out as a stage consisting of a low plinth made of 2 sections, with 2 sculptures on each plinth, a large walking head and a pair of walking legs…a kind of sci-fi comic pair, Don Quiote and Sancho Panza walking down Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I wanted the sculpture to have that sense of almost cinematic movement that you see in Rodins’ ” The Burghers of Calais”.
AN: Some of your sculptures were erected in a public park in New York. Did you get feedback from passersby or art aficionados? How do New Yorkers view public art? Are they nonchalant and unconcerned?
HB: Of all the places I’ve been New York City has the largest and most enthusiastic audience for contemporary art. The show was called “Statuesque” installed in City Hall Park in downtown Manhattan. It was up for 6 months and was very well received. I liked that my piece in the show “The Orientalist” 2007, played with the traditional idea of public bronzes as portraits (usually dignitaries)… was a portrait not of a specific person, but of an ideology…orientalism, and since it is a destructive ideology the figure is monstrous.
AN: Which exhibition do you think changed the course of your career?
HB: My 2006 solo show at ATM Gallery in New York changed everything…I had begun to get some attention before that, but this show was life changing in many ways.
AN: Is it true that you return to your country of origin annually but have not shown here since 1998? Why?
HB: I travel back to Karachi on a regular basis to visit my family and it’s true I haven’t done a show there since 1998. That show was not a very successful one and epitomized a low point…since then my career has become very established in America and Europe. I live in New York and my career is based here and I make work that is fragile and expensive to ship and with the internet, people can see the work quite easily if they are interested.