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In the Margins of the Provinces

Interpreting Huma Bhabha: Unnatural Histories

Was on View. November 18, 2012—April 1, 2013; @ MoMA-PS1




The weirder than modern work of Huma Bhabha (sculptures and drawings of god-knows-what) offers a charged depiction of upset and trauma; in particular, the damages which accrue and bind those whose lives and land have, for centuries, served as the cheaper pieces and gridblocks on freedom's gameboard. Appropriating large chunks of found material, the Pakistani artist has found a way to penetrate--and most importantly--arrive at those deeper recesses of loss known by these restless populations of disease and famine, war and reconstruction.  


The pieces--apart or brought together--are psychologically painful, almost done-to-death.  One finds conjecture inescapable when witnessing the work, which is purposely undone, left over--like a charred piece of classified machinery that, rather than compromised, has been destroyed.  Unlike monuments of more pastoral epochs--made to appease some half-drowsy empire--one finds no attempt by Bhabha to rectify, resurrect or even embalm the dead. Her sculptures, instead, remain aggravated and visceral.  So much that they tempt the viewer to peer through the dispensable layers if just to gain a greater appreciation for the ‘troubles’ and ‘conflicts’ which continue to shape them.  


If one is able to peer through the concussive layers, it is worth considering Huma’s previous profession as a taxidermist—how the emotional strain of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals for life-like display bears upon, broods over and, most importantly, connects the exhibition. Moreover, homing in on Huma's previous profession provides an alternate way to view the trophies that, too often, we recognize as mounted candy.


Nonetheless, the aberrations of Unnatural Histories do borrow from the pastoral tradition: we find a similar devotion to the metamorphic figure, which Huma employs not to elevate the human condition—to express some overarching sense of order or serenity—but to recognize, by laying bare, the very populations which were forfeited for the continued complacency of the “free world.”  Totem-like pieces such as “Rosetta” and “Cousin”, positioned at odds, though almost hinged to each other, register as petrified if not skewered victims.  Composed mostly of cork (with intrusive layers of pink Styrofoam) their jointed bodies—nicked and carved, compressed and (by that compression) enlarged—suggest a disquieting transformation; a metamorphic process just as in line with mountain building as with myth-making.  Such brings to mind a nature which has been recrystallized to appease or (if we speak of these on-going wars) pay off some chthonic deity.






With the brave idea that taxidermy would require some desire to repurpose the ungainly--these sculptures and bricolages (from bricoler, to ‘do odd jobs, repair’) call to mind the figurative work of Anna Coleman Ladd, who in 1917 "opened a studio known as [the] ARC Portrait Studio where she made “new faces” for disfigured soldiers . . . In some cases, because plastic surgery was not advanced enough at the time, these masks served as a permanent cosmetic device.  In total, she made over 60 masks and trained others to continue her work.[1]"  


Certainly, the pieces of Unnatural Histories contrapose Ladd's “full-faced masks of normalcy” with which Anna’s walking creations could hide the “shell craters” that “the war made permanent.”[2] It then seems almost fitting that the declaration of Unnatural Histories would be that there will be no dignified attempt at dignity.
















[1] Tenney-Loring, Karen.  Epigraph.  “The Assistant.”  By Gilbert Allen.  Body Parts.  Columbia, SC: Stepping Stone Press, 2007.


[2] Allen, Gilbert.  “The Assistant.”  Body Parts.  Columbia, SC: Stepping Stone Press, 2007.


Much of what involves  Unnatural Histories could, most accurately, be understood as defaced and dismantled, inhumed and carious, but not without recurring shifts and breaks. Moreover, there's a considered disjointedness, which admits (if only to amend) the classical traditions—Greek, Indian, Judaic, Islamic and more Eastern—for an unlikely admission that much of their worth (these traditions that have remained continuously celebrated and visible) do little to subsume our widespread and (yes) panicked world. 


Wood and cork, Styrofoam and clay, wire and wire mesh; oil stick, Lucite, burlap, cardboard and plastic, plastic bags; a few feathers, some shoe laces—on and off, fitful and broken.  The materials of these hectic bricolages generate and vent off a pitted energy which the pastoral world fails to purge itself of, or protect those grieving from[1]. Along with “Jhukarjodaro” and “Twins,” the title piece airs this energy most openly, exposing the corrosive relation between the individual and the environment that shapes him.


Through the merger of post-industrial materials--chicken wire, crumbling clay, a blown-out tire (all which adds a sort-of-serpentine trail)--one meets a gnawed-through feature tenuously linked to a damaged stretch of flesh-toned terrain, one that attests to the aftereffects of drone-led activity.  Yes--Unnatural Histories reeks of a blotched accrual that, too often, villagers like Abdullah Faqih arrive at.  In Faqih’s own words, reporting to the New York Times[2]  “We found eyes, but there were no faces left.” 



[1] Sacks, Peter M.  The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spencer to Yeats.  John Hopkins University, 1985.  56


[2] Worth, Robert F.  “Drone Strikes’ Risks to Get Rare Moment in the Public Eye.”  New York Times  6  Feb.  2013, late ed., A1.

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