Humaira Abid: Searching for Home at Bellevue Arts Museum

Review

Humaira Abid: Searching for Home at Bellevue Arts Museum

By Emily Pothast February 27, 2018

“If you take the sugar off the table, the ants will stop coming.”1

In 2016, former Australian immigration minister Amanda Vanstone uttered these words as a justification for her country’s practice of forcing all immigrants who arrive by boat into detainment camps until they can be relocated onto neighboring islands.Australia’s anti-refugee policy is notoriously strict, but it’s also part of a larger trend. From Brexit to Trump’s travel ban, many governments have been responding to the global refugee and migrant crisis with hostility and resentment toward people who have already endured the trauma of displacement.

Humaira Abid. Searching for Home (detail), 2016-17; carved pine wood, red wood stain; installation view. Photo: Emily Pothast.

Humaira Abid’s Searching for Home springs from these violent circumstances like a flower bursting through rubble—an oasis of softness behind a thirty-foot fence of barbed wire carved from rich, warm mahogany. Trained as a wood carver and miniature painter in Lahore, Pakistan, Abid invests her materials with an astonishing degree of craft, breathing life into scenes where stories of forced migration are told by the objects left behind.

To the right of the mahogany fence is a plaster-treated wall that evokes a private residence shot through with bullet holes. On this wall are five framed paintings of young girls photographed at refugee camps. Each watercolor and gouache portrait is painstakingly rendered with tiny brushes. The methodology behind their creation feels radical in its care and devotion.

Humaira Abid. Sofia Hassan Mahmood and Isaac Mahmood, Ages unknown, Somalia, 2017; gouache, tea wash, and pigments on handmade wasli paper, framed; installation view, shown with Ants, 2014-17, wire, epoxy putty, paint. Photo: Emily Pothast.

Stationed among the bullet holes are a number of large black ants crafted from wire and epoxy. Ants have long been a part of Abid’s visual vocabulary, but in this context, they seem to directly subvert Vanstone’s dehumanizing rhetoric. Ant societies are complex and matriarchal. Each individual moves with the logic of an entire colony programmed for cooperation and survival.

The ants forge pathways through the gallery, leading to a series of sculptures hand-carved from pine, mahogany, and tulip wood. Some of these sculptural installations involve aggregates of objects, like The Stains Are Forever (2016), a pile of pacifiers commemorating the Peshawar school massacre, and The World Is NOT Perfect (2014–2017), a heap of wooden bricks, toys, broken sunglasses, and shoes so realistic you might be tempted to try them on.

Humaira Abid. The World is NOT Perfect, 2014-2017; carved pine, mahogany, and tulip wood; red wood stain. Photo: Emily Pothast.

In Pakistan, wood carving is considered a masculine artform; Abid chose it to add a feminine perspective. The sentimentality of her chosen objects appeals to a sense of sympathy, but these works also simmer with a quiet anger. Many of the sculptures are painted with a red stain to create the appearance of blood splatters. Combined with hyperrealistic children’s shoes, backpacks, and pacifiers, the effect is chilling. The persistent normalization of child casualties speaks to a deep and intractable cultural sickness, and yet ultimately Abid’s message appears to be one of beauty, optimism, and resilience.

Humaira Abid. Searching for Home (detail), 2016-17; carved pine wood, red wood stain; installation view. Courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo: Emilie Smith. 

This World Is Beautiful, and Dangerous Too (2017) pairs bloody shoes with a child’s swing adorned with a painting of the artist’s daughter playing in a cactus garden. Even the most profound losses contain memories of joy, as well as the hope of finding something new to live for. The combination of horror and hope is almost too much to bear, yet it’s an everyday reality for millions. Abid bears witness to the full range of human emotions with the fine-tuned attention of a miniaturist and transmutes them into a site of comforting catharsis where no detail is minimized or ignored.

Humaira Abid: Searching for Home is on view at Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, WA through March 25, 2018. 

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