On Theft: A conversation between artists Shivanjani Lal and Huma Bhabha
Pakistani born Huma Bhabha makes objects, drawings and sculptures that explore the figurative impulse. Using salvaged furniture or polystyrene, clay, wood, cork, paper, plastic, rubber and metal, Bhabha’s work challenges tropes of monumentality through the borrowing from and referencing of ancient and modern cultural materials. Shivanjani Lal is a Fijian-Australian artist whose work uses personal grief to account for ancestral loss, exploring narratives of indenture and migratory histories from the Indian and Pacific oceans. Recent works have used storytelling, objects and video to account for lost histories, guiding audiences through lived and imagined narratives that attempt to decipher what is lost and the possibilities of futures.
Image credit: Installation view Huma Bhabha, God of Some Things, 2011, and Roxana, 2018 in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, 2020 Museum of Contemporary Art Australia with generous support from Anonymous, and assistance from Salon 94, New York and the United States Government. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York
How do you talk to an artist you admire, when distance and a pandemic both connect and disconnect you? Huma Bhabha’s hybrid practice spans over twenty-five years exploring drawing, sculpture and painting. Her works seek to meditate on alienation and science fiction using both humour and poignancy. In our conversation for VAULT we unpacked ideas around materiality, cinema and the future.
Firstly Huma, how are you?
It is wonderful to e-meet you and thank you for the questions ... hopefully we can meet in person one day.
Something I have been thinking a lot about lately is how do you make art in the company of thieves? In the context of your work, I am curious about the notion of thievery as a methodology for practice?
I am thinking about ‘thievery’ in a couple of different ways. As an artist I have always felt the idea of artists stealing from artists is accepted and reveals itself in the form of an homage. Then there is thievery on the grand scale – societies stealing from societies, due to colonialism or imperialism. But that situation also works both ways when cultures influence cultures, as long as there is growth and not annihilation. The influence of Persian and Greek and Indian cultures on each other resulted in the art and sculpture from Gandhara.
You made a statement in relationship to your suite of sculptures entitled The Company (2019): “One of the ways I like to approach the past is in a cinematic way, reimagining the past and projecting towards the future just as movies often do.” In the context of your work, I am particularly interested in how this informs material choices?
I have been working with certain materials for a long time and found materials are very special to my vocabulary. So, to answer your question, I try to make the same materials transformative each time. I don’t decide, the materials do.
For me, one of the delights in your work is that the aesthetic choices question and re-examine notions of beauty. Particularly how ugly things are made tender. I am wondering if these choices happen by chance or intention?
In the Pacific there is a concept about walking backwards into the future, which reminds me of your earlier statement. I am wondering what the future holds for you?
I wish that concept had meaning to most of the world ... but no one seems to learn from history. I live day to day; the way I see things in the future unfolding are bleak, but I think a constant reminder of that is better than being in a fog. The climate crisis will result in the poor and disenfranchised dying. The middle classes everywhere will become a sort of managerial class that will manage the robots and AI that they are so in awe of to care for the super-rich who will live in a Philip K. Dick imagined existence, e.g. Eye in the Sky (2015).
In relation to the question about thievery, in many ways when I think of the figures in your work in my mind, they occupy the space of what was taken – however they are distinctly reimagined. There’s something about ‘thievery’ being a space in which a return can occur, a recalibration of taking. What are your thoughts on this?
What was taken in most recent history, my history, is a continuation of hubristic theft and destruction amplified. The idea of a ‘return’ is very romantic, but a recalibration of taking what was stolen in the way of human life makes it very difficult for me to accept that this can actually occur. There is a dimness that seems to exist in our present time that does not allow us to reach the past as we normally should, to believe that we are connected to our history, and that makes everything very dark.
I am curious about how you have kept yourself in the studio during this strange moment. What has kept you grounded and afloat? What are the forms of care that have enabled you to continue?
I lead a fairly isolated life in a small city on the Hudson River with my husband and three dogs. The isolation has been very productive as I was really able to focus without the breaks of travel. How are these times any more difficult than not knowing when a drone will be coming for you?
You’ve spoken about materiality and the way its transformation informs your work. I was particularly interested in your use of cork – its relationship to antiquity and its throw-away usage in the contemporary feels very poignant, which in some ways reminds me of Mrinalini Mukherjee’s use of hemp. Her forms feel familiar but are transformed by her perception of place. I wonder how place informs your work, along with material usage?
I think of place as my studio, where sculptures are born surrounded by cork and Styrofoam and all the refuse that I have accumulated. I see Mrinalini Mukherjee’s forms as beings completely her own, not familiar at all, and the relationship she has with the hemp brings her fantastical forms to life. In a sense my figures and forms do have dense art historical references, but it is the expressive power of the materials that allows this provocative exploration of hybridity and emotion.
I love this idea of turning towards sci-fi as a way to work through history – although the day-to-day seems bleak, what keeps you hopeful in these unprecedented times?
I wonder if there was a race of people that was so practical that the notion of hope was an anomaly to them? I think it’s more about keeping yourself happy with no expectations as the times will always seem unprecedented.
Huma Bhabha is represented by Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels; Gagosian Gallery, Rome; Salon 94, New York and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.
Huma Bhabha, The Past is a Foreign Country, 2019, Waiting for Another Game, 2018, and God of Some Things, 2011 in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, 2020 Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney Presented at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Anonymous, and assistance from Salon 94, New York and the United States Government
Photo: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York
Image credit: Installation view, Huma Bhabha, The Setup, 2021, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. Photo: Allard Bovenberg. Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
Image credit: Installation view Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2021, ink, acrylic and collage on B/W print, 203.2 x 127 cm in The Setup, 2021, Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. Photo: Allard Bovenberg. Courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels
This article was originally published in VAULT Magazine Issue 37 (Feb – Apr).
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