There is a distortion of time in BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead; a strange anomaly in the fabric of space. Curious works are in the gallery, they could be from a bygone age, a distant future or a parallel world. In a way, each is true; they are birthed from the mind of Pakistani-American artist Huma Bhabha, whose imagination traverses time, space and genre. Her far-reaching inspirations meld ancient antiquity with modern construction, Western and African art with science-fiction and horror. In her first major survey exhibition in Europe, her alchemical genius is celebrated in all its wonderful, mind-bending glory.
Bhabha’s most recognised works are her cork and styrofoam sculptures: towering statues of genderless, humanoid figures with disproportioned body parts and many faces. They look like the relics of a lost civilisation, made from limestone and volcanic rock, and weathered by millennia of elemental forces. How Bhabha manages to imbue such age into these organic and synthetic materials is a mystery, much like the incomprehensible runes and symbols that mottle their seemingly rough-hewn surfaces. There are five of these statues in the exhibition, all occupying various positions upon a single three-tiered white ziggurat. The Mesopotamian structure adds to the imposing presence of Bhabha’s sculptures, yet its pristine, geometric lines engender a sense of the colonial gaze: of cultural artefacts uprooted and shipped off to foreign lands, where their connection to their original meaning is severed and they are marvelled at simply for their peculiar, otherworldliness.
It is no surprise that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) is included in the exhibition handout’s reading list. Bhabha displays the same unnerving ability to shape life, and, most importantly, to inject that ‘spark’ that makes it come alive. This is most striking in ‘Ripley’ (2011), a deceptively simple piece comprising two styrofoam crates stacked lengthways, two shorn-off styrofoam corners jutting out as feet, and two eyeholes in the top crate. A swirling mass of black ink stains the white polystyrene, pooling and coalescing to suggest the shadow of a being. It may lack the studious care and detail of Bhabha’s cork and styrofoam statues, but it still harbours that essence of vitality, only more sinister and perturbing. The structure is redolent of Easter Island Mo’ai, perhaps built by an unknown future people, using the detritus of a lost age. At the back of the work, there is a small photo of Sigourney Weaver as her character ‘Ripley’ in ‘Alien’ (1979), a nod to the fearless heroine the statue deifies.
‘Against Time’ oscillates between this darkness and playfulness, between the macabre and tongue-in-cheek devilry. The walls are interspersed with a multitude of collages and paintings of ghoulish faces, many plastered and daubed over photos of Karachi — where Bhabha was born — and desolate desert and urban landscapes. The portraits display the enquiring intrigue of Renaissance anatomical drawings, the abstract expressions of Picasso, and the unsettling forms of Bacon. They are animated with dark vigour, making you feel uneasy. That is, until you notice little details like their cannabis bud eyes (clippings taken from the Florida-based ‘HIGHLIFE: Magazine’) or that they wear pendants showing their favourite animals.
Bhabha’s works may frequently be seen as ancient simulacra or post-apocalyptic harbingers of a dystopian future, but they are anchored in the here and now: contemporary pieces that speak to feelings of displacement, memories of home, and the disconnect with our environment. A shadow looms over and throughout her work, one that can create as well as destroy and should not be altogether feared. Bhabha seems able to channel this energy, collapsing time and space to acknowledge the monumentality of human civilisation, of life, of wild imagination, and all the wondrous and monstrous things it can produce.