Huma Bhabha ‘We Come in Peace,’ April 17-October 28, 2018
Ranjani Shettar, “Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops,” March 12-August 12, 2018
Both on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
With a pair of larger than life figures descended on the roof, and an intricate landscape dancing from a gallery ceiling elsewhere in the same iconic building, works by two female sculptors of South Asian origin have decisively and dramatically landed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Invited for the 2018 Met Roof Garden commission, Huma Bhabha’s “We Come in Peace” is precisely attuned to our contemporary moment, using art historical references and the language of science fiction as tropes to address critical political questions of migration, displacement, and nativism. Bhabha, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan and has lived and worked in Poughkeepsie, New York for the past fifteen years, works across two and three-dimensional mediums and has garnered significant critical praise in the past decade for formally daring figurative sculpture that take on fantastical or monstrous forms. Referencing global visual cultures and histories, her works often simultaneously abstract otherworldly fantasy along with totemic and funerary sculptures, among other visual, cinematic, and literary references.
For the Met, Bhabha has created an installation composed of two enormous anthropomorphic cast-bronze sculptures: a twelve foot tall “character” (as the artist calls her figures) whose name titles the broader project, and Benaam (‘unnamed’ or ‘nameless’ in Urdu), an eighteen-foot long figure prone in front of We Come in Peace. Both sculptures defy their medium remarkably, appearing as if they were cork, clay, Styrofoam, and plastic - the alternately fragile and everyday materials Bhabha regularly employs in her work, and which the artist initially handcrafted rough versions of these sculptures with. (The final versions needed to be cast in bronze to survive the season on the Met’s roof.) This subtle trompe l’oeil refutes the process and politics of commemorative sculptures by maintaining the visage of ephemeral materials rather than bronze.
While We Come in Peace connotes power through its frontal confrontation and imposing size, the work challenges historical conventions of monuments and portrait representations that have predominantly privileged white males and their gaze. The sculpture instead presents an intersex and multi-headed figure that reads figuratively as a monster or alien. The work’s title alludes to the American science fiction film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), in which a flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. When a humanoid emerges, he announces that he has “come in peace,” but is quickly shot by a nervous soldier when he opens a small device. The device, suddenly destroyed, was intended to be a gift to the President, enabling the American leader to study life on other planets. Refracted through the lens of the United States in 2018, this evokes meaningful and manifold parallels, from near-daily tragedies of black lives lost to police and state violence - sometimes but not always reaching for an innocuous object - to the nationalist and racist rhetoric of a government whose policies threaten lives and livelihoods at home and abroad. Bhabha’s deployment of a “first contact” narrative builds on a growing discourse linking science fiction and contemporary art, which is particularly powerful when reflecting on speculative and subaltern histories as in this installation.
Benaam appears as a form hidden under a cloak with only enlarged hands and an elongated tail poking out. We are unable to see the body, but its crouched silhouette appears possibly human (save for its tail) with a single head and back hunched in submission. Through both the physicality and title of this work, Bhabha critically engages with the dehumanization and facelessness that nearly all “others” have felt more urgently in today’s political climate. While Benaam appears to be prostrating, the figure is somewhat askew of the feet of We Come in Peace, signaling a slight uncertainty in their relationship, which is complicated further by the suggestion that Benaam may represent a more conventional man overtaken by the alien. While the installation is formally spare - leaving much room for the visitor to circumnavigate and discern, and look at these characters against the backdrop of the city skyline - the Roof Garden is also a social space for New Yorkers and tourists alike throughout the spring and summer. With these anonymous visitors coming and going - iPhones, selfie sticks, and cleverly named cocktails in tow, We Come in Peace becomes a conversation between home, world, and the space beyond that, with lingering and poetic uncertainty about who represents each.
Several floors away in the same building, Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops by Ranjani Shettar, who lives and works in rural Karnataka, seems to grow down from the ceiling in one of the Met’s Modern and Contemporary collection galleries. In India and globally, Shettar has been lauded for immersive installations that can appear living and dreamlike in their explorations of abstracted forms. She uses materials including beeswax, wood, organic dyes, vegetal pastes, lacquer, steel, and cloth in her work. While Shettar’s work is characteristically beautiful, sensitive, and poetic, it also has a specific philosophical and ethical stance, reflecting on the thunder of ecological crises including climate change in India today that the artist has observed herself. Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops is composed of pieces of stainless steel covered in tamarind-stained muslin, evoking a delicate and magical landscape brought to life by shadows cast throughout the room-sized space. In this work and throughout her oeuvre, Shettar integrates natural and industrial materials with inimitable grace. She deftly creates dialogue between the aesthetics of minimal abstraction and traditional craft techniques developed and learned in rural India, including with the technique of staining muslin with tamarind practiced in the small village of Kinnala. The components of Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops appear weightless and resolutely organic, eliding nuclear and floral structures and defying fixity of meaning and form. The installation is captivating in its multiplicity, but this is curtailed to an extent as visitors are limited to the outer perimeter of the installation (necessarily perhaps, given the seeming fragility of the work).
Bhabha and Shettar offer aesthetically distinct but politically synchronous visions through their large-scale installations, pointing obliquely to some of the key urgencies of our day, and unraveling outdated conventions of sculptural installation and the viewer’s relationship to it. The great strength of havingtheseindependent projects - both organized by Metropolitan Museum of Art Assistant Curator Shanay Jhaveri - on view at the same time is that they are complementary in force while presenting two different underrepresented feminist narratives of contemporary sculpture from and related to South Asia in New York. (Both artists, however, have considerable and deserved gallery representation and exhibition histories in the city, a testament to their existent global reach.) Bhabha and Shettar have offered intellectually rigorous and poetic conversations around materiality and space, in addition to transforming and-in some ways-destabilizing the role of the viewer. These projects importantly signal an institution willing to offer correctives to its own canon and history, a necessary labor of hope that aliens and other beings of all persuasions will walk among us freely and soon.
Huma Bhabha (born 1962, Karachi, Pakistan), The Roof Garden Commission: Huma Bhabha, We Come in Peace, Installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018, © Huma Bhabha, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Hyla Skopitz