Huma Bhabha does not work with images culled from the Internet; she eschews appropriation and explanatory texts. Perhaps because of her devotion to old-fashioned creativity, Bhabha is rapidly becoming one of the most celebrated contemporary artists. Born in 1962, in Karachi, Pakistan, she came to the United States to study at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she received her BFA. She then earned an MFA from Columbia University in 1989. Her current studio occupies the ground floor of an old firehouse in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she lives with her husband, Jason Fox, and two large dogs.
The discussion that follows looks back to her roof-garden commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which closed last fall, and forward to the largest retrospective of her work yet, “Huma Bhabha: They Live,” which opens March 23 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and remains on view through May 27, 2019.
Daniel Kunitz: Do you like living in Poughkeepsie?
Huma Bhabha: Yes. I’ve been here 15 years, so I’m very set. It’s a good place to work and not have so many distractions. But we don’t really have any social life here, so sometimes you want to go into the city and make up for it. I liked being in the city, but it’s nice here, very quiet. It would be nice to be in a more country setting, though I think I prefer the city because I grew up in a big city, and then I lived in New York for many years. I like the access to the train—I can walk there.
DK: Have you traveled much in India?
HB: Not as much as I should have, because I was born in Pakistan. It’s become very difficult to get a visa because, after 9-11, India decided to have a Patriot Act similar to the American one. Before that, because I also have a U.S. passport and I have family in India, I was able to go more easily.
DK: Your mother was an artist.
HB: She was not a professional, but very talented. She made a lot of portraits, did a lot of copies of famous paintings. Before she had children, she was more prolific. She fueled my interest in making art. Both my parents were ok with me wanting to study art after high school, and when we traveled she would take us to museums. So, that leaves a memory. I still remember going to the Parthenon and museums in Rome and in England. In India, we would go to all the great architectural wonders, lots of tombs and mosques, and we’d also see sculptures.
DK: In your own sculptures, do you think about the scale first or the figure?
HB: The way that I work is quite intuitive. I have an idea of what I’m going to do, but I don’t make exact sketches. The face and body of any one piece is not exactly what I had drawn—a lot of it happens in working with the medium. You problem-solve, which is part of my process. It’s kind of like carving, drawing, or sketching as you’re doing it. The materials that I’m working with have a pretty strong personality of their own, which is interesting to deal with.
I’ve been working at various scales—before the Met commission, I’d gone up to eight feet. With the Met commission, I couldn’t even see the whole thing in the studio, because my ceilings are 12 feet high, and I wanted the piece to be taller than that. In fact, I had to make it slightly bigger than I wanted. I had to see it in sections; I couldn’t put it all together until it went to the foundry.
DK: What led you to work with cork?
HB: Although I’ve been living within a one-mile radius for the last 15 years, this is the third place I’ve had in Poughkeepsie. For a while, I lived in an apartment building that had been around since the ’60s, I think, and there was a store next to it. The owners were pretty old, and they were slowly shutting it down—the guy was very nice, and he would sell off stuff for nothing. He had cork blocks, which he’d obviously had since the ’70s, and they were wrapped in wrapping paper and stored in vitrines. I saw them lying there and said, “I’ll take whatever you have.” So, he sold me a bunch of cork blocks; then he found some more in his storeroom, and he gave them to me for practically nothing. I bought a bunch of other stuff from him, things that looked interesting to use for sculpture, like something as a stand. I had the cork in my studio for several months, and finally I began to think about it. I started out making smaller pieces, then larger and larger, then I ran out. I had to look for it and buy it. Cork is a softer material than wood, so it’s easier to carve, and I don’t have to be super strong to do it. I also started adding blue Styrofoam to it, which I’d been working with before. I use it because it’s resilient, it’s light, and it has its own history.
DK: Has your work always been totemic?
HB: I think at least from my first standing figures, which began in 2006 and were made with clay and other objects, as well as Styrofoam. They’re totemic because I make my own armatures. Since I don’t make welded armatures, they don’t have a lot of movement. I’ve also looked at Northwest Coast totems and African totems, and there’s a lot of influence from them. Change happens slowly, but in the Met piece, there’s actually a dramatic change with the legs—there’s more movement in them. I am also very much into the sarcophagus pieces, which refer to architecture and landscape. I see my pieces as sort of machines, too.
DK: Do you see them as characters?
HB: Oh yes, definitely. Some people have said there is a lack of color in the work, but that’s because I use clay and the natural color of the Styrofoam and usually black or white paint. I’ve started to draw on the more recent cork pieces with oil stick because it stays on the cork. It’s about which materials work and which don’t—a lot of my choices are very practical that way. What can I do to make this look really intense?
DK: How do you come up with titles?
HB: I come up with titles toward the end, when the pieces start to become more complete. Because they are like characters, their personalities begin to become more dominant as soon as they start to have faces.
DK: Do you think of your figures as male or female?
HB: I think of them more as hermaphrodites. I want them to have a multiple sexuality.
DK: Your work does seem to suggest moving between worlds or places or planes.
HB: Yes, and sometimes there are little bits of information, paying homage to other artists for stealing their ideas, but it’s a form of respect.
DK: Who do you steal from most?
HB: Rauschenberg and Picasso. The Rauschenberg of the combines is a genius. Anything you want to work in, he and Picasso have dealt with in some way, so you can find something for yourself. Louise Bourgeois was also an early influence. She had such a long career; you can see the changes happen. There are a lot of people who work in a figurative way but also in an abstract way.
I don’t want my work to look like someone else’s— I’m not remaking something, that has never been my intention. I’m not interested in remaking or in appropriating; I’m much more interested in being imaginative and creative. But, of course, I’m highly influenced by looking at stuff. I’m also interested in understanding why certain things were done, how certain things happen, why through the ages people from some cultures have influenced each other because of crossing over, visitation. You see mutual influences within Greek sculpture and Hindu sculpture because of their proximity and trade—I’m interested in how things grow that way. When you look at African sculpture, it’s usually really small but it has such intensity. It’s made out of one block of wood, and I don’t think I could do that. My process is a lot more raw.
DK: Do you work in series?
HB: No, one piece to the next. I have two or three pieces going at the same time, but it’s like a continuous investigation into the figure, not a series. If one thing is wet, then I go to the other thing.
DK: Do you think about death a lot?
HB: Yes. It’s so much around us. We live in a world where people are constantly killing each other, and in a constant state of war. It’s troubling. It seems to be such an industry, they just can’t seem to tear themselves away from the industry of killing.
DK: Do you want the sarcophagus pieces to bring death to mind?
HB: I don’t want to bum people out or anything, but that’s just the reality of our existence. At least I feel that. It’s interesting, even in this country, the number of killings going on. We’re killing each other, it’s not someone else coming and killing us. In other places, it’s another story. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still going on, but nobody talks about them anymore. And if you look at the news, you find out that 1,000 people have died in the past two weeks in a city in Syria. There are still drone bombings going on in Afghanistan.
DK: Many of your works on paper are photographs that you then painted on. Where do you find the photographs?
HB: They’re photographs that I’ve taken myself. I print them as large photos on photographic paper. I like the glossiness and the information that they already have, and then adding to it. Sometimes I end up covering a lot of it, sometimes I don’t. I also use collage on them. A lot of the photographs are from going to other places, though I’ve also done pictures in Poughkeepsie, usually landscapes or details of trees. I started taking photographs when I went back to Pakistan, initially because I was invited to do a portfolio of prints. I decided to take pictures in the tradition of other artists who took pictures and then drew on them, either to change the photograph or to use it as a background. So, I drove around the city taking pictures of details. A lot of these are either landscapes or architectural foundations, which have just started, because again the idea is to think about sculpture. For example, the foundation of a house as a sort of plinth.
DK: You’ve used feet as plinths, too.
HB: Yes. I like the idea of giants walking around. The feet also come from seeing giant sculptures in India carved into walls, 15 or 20 feet high. Imagine if one of them was broken. Or, there’s the statue of Constantine in Rome, all broken up, the head sitting there, the foot and hand over here. I also like feet. I made a sculpture in which the body is blown up and just the feet are there, because I saw a movie once where just the sneakers and ankles are left. It was an image that stuck with me, and I thought I’d do something like that. This was in about 2000, and it’s something that has kept coming back.
DK: Do you think about animism a lot?
HB: Yes. I love animals, especially dogs and donkeys, whatever I have access to. My old dog was a Jack Russell, and we had a Jack Russell calendar; then I realized that they make all these great dog calendars here, and I wanted to use them. A dog photo helps me to compose a picture. A few years back, I started using images from a wildlife calendar. There were interesting things happening, and I started using wolves, then dogs. I also use other collage elements within the photographs, because I collect a lot of images from newspapers and magazines, and invitations from art shows. Those things appear in the sculptures, too, they’re just embedded, so you have to look for them, because each side of the sculpture is different—it’s not just the rest of the body. You can approach it as something abstract or as something figurative or as architecture.
I don’t find images online. I’m not into that. I teach sometimes, and all the students do is look at the Internet, and there’s a certain kind of sameness to that. I didn’t grow up with the Internet—obviously we’re all dependent on it, because we’ve become lazy—but I think that’s why I’m used to looking at other things. I pick up magazines and calendars. A friend of mine was cleaning out his place, and he came across a High Times magazine. Initially I was looking at it in the bathroom, and I thought it was too nice to keep in there. The images of marijuana buds are like centerfolds. I thought, “Why not try to incorporate them somehow?” So, I’ve used them as eyes, or sometimes they look like spores, very sci-fi looking. They add a different element. There’s obviously humor. I smoke pot, and I think it’s a beautiful plant.
DK: Do you feel there’s a lot of humor in your work?
HB: I do. A certain kind of humor—dark, influenced by watching television and movies. I watch a lot of detective shows and cop shows and a lot of movies. I’m waiting for the next Game of Thrones. My new favorite movie that I watched recently was Thor: Ragnarok, which I found very funny—I mean it was a comedy. I watch new movies on the plane.
Sometimes people don’t see the references to popular culture in my work, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Maybe the work seems a little heavy, but I think there’s a balance. As an artist, you don’t necessarily have to be in one frame of thought. Different things pop into your head as you look at things, and that’s how you make connections. I think people should determine their own meanings. As a rule, I don’t like text on the wall or work that has to go with a text. It’s better when you make it in a way that is open to a lot of interpretation, but you can direct people a little bit.
This article appears in the March/April issue of Sculpture.