Following a solo museum debut at Bellevue Arts Museum in 2018, Humaira Abid, who was born in Pakistan, continues to focus on the fate of women, parents, and children caught up in refugee crises. While “Searching for Home” featured installations of carved wooden objects like baby pacifiers, shoes, suitcases, and guns, “Sacred Games,” Abid’s recent show, concentrated on discrete, mostly wall-mounted sculptures and miniature paintings covering a wider variety of subjects; these works intensified the sense of material construction as a vehicle for significant content, including the oppression of Muslim women and the culpability of world religions.
Abid’s work (coordinated with studio teams doing the laser-cutting and carving in Lahore and Seattle) straddles the spheres of art and craft, the latter evidenced by her inclusion in numerous exhibitions devoted to artists working exclusively in wood. Her illusionistic soft objects made of hard materials emerge out of Surrealism, especially West Coast Funk, such as works by the late Jeremy Anderson. Rather than eliciting humor, however, Abid turns double takes into jolts of meaning. In And I Was Seeking Equality in Love (2016), for instance, a man’s tie and a woman’s bra are suspended on a wooden rack, separated by an ominous pair of scissors. Similarly, the neatly folded, wall-mounted children’s clothing in Folded Stories: Second Series (2020) awaits absent wearers who are detained, assaulted, or dead. Abid emphasizes uncanny details—embroidery, buttons, and creases—to emphasize the reality of her objects while also separating them from reality.
Lacking the powerful installation approach of her museum show, which surrounded the sculptures with barbed wire, the individual sculptures in “Sacred Games” had to carry greater symbolic power through single elements or multiple parts. In My Shame III (2016), another suspended bra stands in for belief systems suppressing women’s sexuality and body positivity. A wall-mounted toy in the shape of a flying bird hovers over the worn shoes of an adult and child in Mother and Child III (2019); escape and freedom are elusive to the refugee family whose fate is more likely detention or death.
Abid’s frankness takes on a dimension of courage and anger, which has been recognized by contemporary art curators in South Asia. Instead of the figure, which is prohibited in Islamic art, Abid uses everything that surrounds the body to flesh out her examination of religious persecution, sexual assault, and, in more recent works, empty political slogans. The latter, many alluding to Trump campaign signs (Are We Great Yet?), are too topical to have the same timeless quality of Abid’s other sculptures, though I Can’t Breathe is bound to last.
The most personal work in the show was a group of found object sculptures dealing with a friend’s molestation. Abid elaborately reproduced accusatory letters in English, written to “my brother, my molester and to my mother,” who ignored the writer’s plight. The envelopes are made of pine, while the letters are handwritten on paper in uniform cursive script, all joined by realistic crawling ants, a frequent element in Abid’s work. A carved, gilded antique chair forms the basis of My Shame I (2016); ants approach the blood stain painted on the upholstered seat. This work was reinforced by another degraded example of words and wood—Overrated Virginity (2020), with worm-eaten letters spelling out “V i R G i n.”
Abid has received warnings in Pakistan; it’s a miracle she has not received death threats. She not only challenges traditional Islamic strictures about women, but also treats the three monotheistic religions as the cause of war in Religious Symbols (2020)—barbed-wire wall drawings of a star and crescent, a Star of David, and a Christian cross. These shorthand protests supported the more complex Prisoners of Religion (2020), a pedestal-mounted, carved Victorian birdcage that contains painted symbols of seven major religions surrounding a gun. In Tempting Eyes: Gold Series (2020), which explicitly refers to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, automobile rearview mirrors are painted with women’s faces, their eyes showing behind their veils. The recently granted freedom to drive, long denied to Saudi women, has been revealed as just a tease or dangerous “temptation” to be monitored and punished—a fact made clear by the number of Saudi women imprisoned. For secular nations, the power of religion to dictate social mores, control state authority, and hamper personal liberties is abhorrent. Abid is fully Western in this sense, distant enough from South Asia to be safe, close enough to comment, criticize, and, with her ingenious approach to representation, appeal to and communicate with sympathetic Western viewers. Her widening purview of injustice is part of what she describes as her “responsibility to educate the society in which I live and to be a voice.”