The Defiant Compassion of Humaira Abid

Posted on September 26, 2017, 10:21 am
13 mins

The wood sculptures and miniature paintings of Humaira Abid are uncanny, beautiful, clever. But at her first solo museum show, Searching for Home at Bellevue Arts Museum, the salient word is “defiant.”

Western culture loves defiance, at least in retrospect. We mythologize the “native genius,” the man “who goes his own way,” who challenges authority, superstitions and mores. Such figures are the height of the west’s pursuit of individualism, especially when an abstract notion of “society” has edged out a rigid god as the prime mover. For theocrats, the justification is reversed (god over society), but the pursuit is the same: naked, individual power.

Of course, society itself is largely the product of political and technological advances, generally attributed to singular, defiant forebears. If one knows one’s history and views it through a lens where defiance is a primary value, it’s easy to see it all as a restless serpent eating its own tail. A culture that takes this view becomes cynical, and in becoming cynical, it clings to the status quo and no longer distinguishes between what truly defies an oppressive power and what merely wishes to seize power.

Among the most cynical observers, the mere defiance of common decency and regard—cruelty, in short—becomes fetishized. We rarely condemn this behavior full-throatedly because it is, in fact, true to the larger culture. Sometimes, we even elect a perfect arbiter of such cruelty to the highest office in the land.

Yet, there remains one case in which defiance tends to receive immediate condemnation: When a woman questions this power structure, the status quo.

The Defiance of Humaira Abid

The case of Humaira Abid is one of true defiance rooted in compassion. Abid defied expectations when she became an artist in Pakistan. She defied norms within that realm when she chose wood as her primary medium. She defies cultural taboos when she uses her sculptures to discuss the physical realities of being in a female body, from menstruation to motherhood. (This taboo is especially in Pakistan, where she was born and continues to maintain a studio, while based in Seattle.) She even defies what is thought to be possible within the wood medium through her remarkable skill and imagination.

Most importantly, Abid defies the cynicism of our time by approaching every subject anew, with subtlety and devotion. To Abid, history is not merely repeating when atrocities occur. The victims are not numbers and statistics. They are (or were) flesh and blood. The full bloom of this approach is evident in Searching for Home, which was guest curated by Jennifer-Navva Milliken.

Humaira Abid at work on her mahogany barbed wire. Photo by Emilie Smith, courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

Abid’s work is, in the first place, a technical marvel. Using mostly pine and mahogany, she creates to-scale representations of banal objects: a piece of luggage, a crumpled shoe, a pile of bricks. The results are uncanny, especially the “leather” objects, whose creases and folds look to be the natural result of years of wear, not an awl.

This would be merely impressive if Abid was interested in virtuosity for its own sake. Instead, she uses her virtuosity to show reverence for her subject matter. In Searching for Home, she has created seven tableaux of objects that tell stories of violence and loss and those who survive with its memory. Mothers and girls figure most prominently.

Searching For Home

Entering into the gallery containing Searching for Home, one is met with a “barbed wire” fence. The posts are genuine old fence posts, but the barbed wire and is carved mahogany (over 400 feet of it). Tattered clothing that seems caught on a barb is pinewood. Any barrier can create a sense of exclusion or imprisonment depending on which side you are on, but in a gallery setting filled with works relating to refugees and war, the fence is especially affecting.

This is the most literal work in Searching for Home. The other sculptures take more subtly symbolic forms and are often spattered with a blood-red stain.

A pinewood breast pump drips crimson onto the pedestal where it sits, and large black ants are attached as if climbing to sniff (or sip) the splatters. A trio of suitcases sit on a circular dais, with bloody handprints on the handles and a roll of carpet (all pinewood) lying between. A pile of mahogany bricks in one corner is riddled with smartphones, shoes and toys, all carved from pine, and one tulip-wood pacifier. Pacifiers figure heavily in the most disturbing tableau of the show, The Stains Are Forever. It encapsulates so much of the brutality faced in Searching for Home.

In The Stains Are Forever, thirty-nine pacifiers carved of pinewood are staged as if being swept up by an industrial floor squeegee. The pacifiers piled at its blade are fully stained red, and the squeegee blade itself is plexiglass around artboard, on which Abid has painted nine white butterflies. More black ants crawl among the pacifiers as if searching for scraps. The numbers represent pregnancy: thirty-nine weeks or nine months. It’s Abid’s response as a mother to the 2014 Peshawar School Massacre in Pakistan.

Detail of The Stains Are Forever by Humaira Abid. Photo by Adeel Ahmed, courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

There have been many atrocities since, but none so deadly in Pakistan. On that day, six Taliban soldiers killed 132 schoolchildren and nine adults. All but one of the children killed were boys, as the militants believed that boys had greater value and thus their deaths would do more harm to the parents. The militants were killed in the attack, as was its mastermind (in a later drone strike). Pakistan lifted its moratorium on the death penalty and executed conspirators.

To defy terrorism, authorities announced that the school would reopen quickly. Alongside these decrees, photos circulated of the school’s corridors, filled with blood being squeegeed away. It was such a photo that inspired Abid’s response. The title of The Stains Are Forever speaks for itself.

And it wasn’t just spilt blood being swept away after the attacks. None of the six soldiers who took part in the massacre were Pakistani, and two were Afghani. Authorities used this to justify a crack-down on Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and tens of thousands of Afghans returned to the dangers that they had fled to escape more immediate reprisal as foreign refugees. The fence surrounding these installations in Searching For Home reminds one of the horrors that ripple from such great cruelty.

When we think in such scale, in such numbers of people, it becomes impossible to comprehend the collective loss. Abid’s work helps us to, as the saying goes, walk in the shoes of the victim just a little. The blood-stained shoes in the corner could be those of any young girl close to us. By focusing on objects held close to the body, but absent a body, Abid evokes the personal histories and individual lives erased in a public history still being written and revised.

From Searching for Home at Bellevue Arts Museum. Photo by Emilie Smith, courtesy of Bellevue Arts Museum.

Ants And Anxieties

The ants that seem to have infested the gallery might puzzle some viewers. They are each about an inch long and made of wire and epoxy. They scale walls riddled with bullet holes and, as mentioned before, seem to pop up where blood has been spilled. They are unsettling, but no more so than the rest of the work, so they feel strangely at home in Searching For Home.

Abid isn’t specific about their meaning, but their enigmatic presence is justified by the way they immediately provoke questions and conversations. To provoke questions is her primary goal, not to propagandize.

That said, one is free to make more specific associations. Other artists have depicted ants to imply anxiety (Dali) or pain (Wojnarowicz). In a show that addresses refugee migrations, if one takes a more cynical view, the ants could represent the way in which we dehumanize people in great numbers. I want us to resist that urge. Instead, I think of myrmidons.

In the Greek myth, the Myrmidon people were brought into existence from ants by Zeus. They most famously were led by Achilles in the Trojan War, a war that at base was a travesty of leadership, born of wounded pride, envy and wrath. It is not often remembered this way by cultures that glamorize warfare of any sort (especially the futile, endless sort), but at least the modern definition of myrmidon reflects this nicely. Today, a myrmidon is one who is unthinkingly loyal and brutish.

We are not just surrounded by myrmidons; we are led by them, and that is a dangerous inversion. We might even be them ourselves if we are not careful. The great irony is that by fetishizing defiance to the point of accepting cruelty (as a tactic or as entertainment), what we have come to define as defiant is, in fact, the new normal to be upheld. One cannot say that this behavior is limited to the trolls, edgelords and assorted mediocre malcontents on online forums. It isn’t even limited to the disaffected bigotry of alt-right youths marching with tiki torches and chanting Nazi slogans. It is far more pervasive than all of that. We are all implicated.

In light of that, we need to re-evaluate what is defiant. Voices who call for curiosity and compassion have always been an exception. Now, they are truly defiant. And so Humaira Abid: Searching For Home, in its defiance and compassion, is vital viewing for all of us.

Humaira Abid: Searching For Home is on display at Bellevue Arts Museum through March 25.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.