Metropolitan Museum of Art
In We Come in Peace, Huma Bhabha’s Cantor Roof commission for the Met (on view through October 28, 2018), a monumental figure stands 12 feet tall, its five-sided head staring in all directions. The giant’s hands and feet, long hair, and big ears seem gender-neutral, but pointed breasts signal female and a big bulge below the waist could indicate male. The all-seeing one’s body is black from the hips down, turquoise up to the neck, and pinkish-gray on top. Its various markings include star-like scarification on the breasts, pink dots on the buttocks, scars up and down its back and arms, a five-sided blue star tattoo on its left hip, and colorful scratches on the legs and arms. The figure faces north as humans of all ages wander freely across the roof taking selfies.
A second figure, Benaam (Urdu for no name), cowers or bows before the giant. This prostrate creature has large human hands and a tail of lumpy protuberances that, according to the exhibition catalogue, may be excrement. Almost completely covered by a black body bag, this abject being most closely resembles a human-like rat.
Cast in bronze from Styrofoam, wood, plastic, and cork, We Come in Peace alludes to numerous references from art history, science fiction, and contemporary culture—so many, in fact, that a selective background reading list includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS. Bhabha’s title comes from the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still in which a masked humanoid comes out of a spaceship to tell astonished Americans, “We have come to visit you in peace”; but the earthlings overreact and shoot the creature, whereupon a giant robot from the spaceship fires back at the attackers. Knowledge of the movie is not essential: we’re all familiar with over-reaction and the escalation of confrontation. Even if the giant is sincere, its reception may not be warm and cordial.
The relationship of this ambiguous message to contemporary life is complicated by further references. The catalogue reveals that the giant also draws inspiration from Tarkovsky’s Stalker and other sci-fi films; sculptures by Giacometti, Picasso, Dubuffet, and Rodin; the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and India; and paintings by Georg Baselitz and Cy Twombly. At the Met, such polymath influences are reinforced by the collection, from the ancient stone monoliths in the lobby to works displayed throughout the galleries leading to the roof.
Although the relationship of Bhabha’s figures is not clear, We Come in Peace seems to be protecting the nameless one. In some religions and cultures, it is proper to bow to a leader, a direction, or a symbol. Perhaps this giant, with its all-pervasive hybridity, signals a future when difference, of whatever kind, will be accepted and honored. Or it may symbolize a dictator/monster using false historic narratives to gain power. Bhabha’s dramatic and thought-provoking work epitomizes a quality that a Met senior curator once told me he seeks: “I look for art I don’t yet fully understand.”