Karachi born, New York-based artist Huma Bhabha makes large-scale totemic sculptures and installations, which combine figuration and abstraction to deal with the trauma of colonialism. She is known for her sculptures of grotesque forms as well as for the pastel drawings and photographs which accompany her installations. She works with unlikely materials such as Styrofoam, wood, wire, and clay. With the exception of Styrofoam, these materials are the ones used in traditional bronze casting
When Bhabha was a young student in Egypt, she was encouraged by her mother, an amateur painter, to pursue art. She was fascinated by cartoons and greeting cards and knew that she wanted to be an artist. She moved to the United States to study at the Rhode Island School of Design where she received her B.A. in 1985. In 1989, she received her M.F.A. from Columbia University. Interestingly she never studied sculpture in art school and learned by trial and error herself.
Early in her career from 1994-1996 she made masks. She bought cheap plastic masks and used them as armatures for elaborate mask sculptures, adding paper mache and found objects. She also made eerie colored drawings of mask-like visages and took photographs of empty landscapes, many shot in Pakistan.
Bhabha’s work is eclectic with rugged styles of figurative sculpture ranging from classical and African sculpture to horror films. “I start by building the armature for a sculpture. It’s pretty much coming straight out of my head – no sketches or drawings usually.” Her works combine austere modernist forms with futuristic imagery of science fiction.
In 2006, Bhabha turned traditional bronze-making on its head. Her sculpture “A.B.” is actually a cast and painted bronze. However, its surface looks like clay. This work’s painted bronze surface shows the rough-worked texture of clay as she questions the conventional values of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.
In 2010, she made a semi-figurative sculpture “Untitled” out of cork, wood, and acrylic paint. Again the roughness of its form suggests a totemic sculpture of modernist abstraction. In the same year her “Tupac Amaru,” named after the last Indigenous monarch of the Inca empire, is an assemblage of polystyrene foam blocks, chickenwire, clay, and wood. These everyday materials stand in contrast to the gold that drove the Spanish conquest. Her “Unnatural Histories” shows an alien-like figure with lopsided eyes, created for her first solo show at New York’s MoMA PS1 in 2012.
Bhabha’’s 2018 bronze sculpture “We Come in Peace” was commissioned for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s rooftop terrace. This installation takes its title from the 1951 movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” It consists of two pieces. The first is a 12-foot-tall standing figure, whose surface is scratched and gouged and whose head has four faces. The second piece, titled “Benaam,” an Urdu word meaning ‘unnamed’, is an 18-foot-long figure, lying prostrate before the first figure and is covered by a black plastic tarp. Both figures were sculpted in cork and Styrofoam before being cast in bronze. Commanding in presence, it is as if the sculptures are beckoning to one another.
In 2013, Bhabha received the Berlin Prize Fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. She participated in the Nice Biennale in 2015 and in 2016 was honored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her largest survey exhibition to date was at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Bronx Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Centre Georges Pompidou, and Whitney Museum of American Art.