NEW YORK – The Pakistani American artist Huma Bhabha’s intriguing two sculptures is the sixth site-specific commission on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden, which opened on April 17, and will be on view through October 28.
One of the sculptures is 12-foot-tall, genderless, monstrous-looking, with five protruding heads. Yet, it’s fascinatingly benign too in its posture, as if aggression is becalmed. Its title, ‘We Come in Peace’ is a famous line, now part of pop culture lexicon, from the 1951 sci-fi film ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, directed by Robert Wise.
The other is 18-feet long, prostrate with grotesque, ogre-like hands supplanted near the other sculpture’s foot, entitled ‘Benaam’ (meaning nameless, in Urdu). Again, its sexuality is indecipherable; partly shrouded as if in a body bag or burqa, massive haunches outgrown its protective, or incarcerated, outer layer.
Interpretations abound on the two sculptures installed atop one of the highest and most picturesque ‘pedestals’ in New York City. Bhabha handcrafted the two sculptures from found materials: cork, Styrofoam, air-dried clay, and plastic, at her studio in Poughkeepsie, New York. Later, she cast them in bronze at a foundry in Kingston, New York.
In a catalogue, accompanying the commission, Shanay Jhaveri, Assistant Curator, South Asia, Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, points out in an essay that the sculptures, ‘in a stark encounter’, hopes to elicit an array of allegorical narratives.
Jhaveri writes that ‘We Come in Peace’ is “a deliberate exercise in excess…standing as a mighty witness for otherness.” He questions of ‘Benaam’: “Is it a subjugated figure made completely abject? A dead body with a trail of feculence leaking from behind? Are the outstretched hands and bowed haunches reminiscent of the Muslim position of prayer?”
In another essay, Ed Halter, founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, interprets the two installations as akin to a first contact narrative, from popular sci-fi films, between an alien and human.
Halter, who points out that Bhabha’s works has long drawn on formal elements from science fiction, fantasy and horror films, questions of ‘Benaam’: “Is this gesture one of reverence and worship, as towards a messiah, an idol, or some other figure of great spiritual power? Or is it instead a gesture of surrender before a stronger enemy, or the supplication of a slave to its master?”
Yet, both Jhaveri’s and Halter’s interpretations of the Met commission seem to veer off the mark, given Bhabha’s heritage and origin as a Pakistani-origin artist, who moved out of New York City to upstate New York, in 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
On first look, the two sculptures bring to mind transmogrification; deformed humans, debilitated, decayed perhaps morally, even as their size grew in monstrosity because of their vile, ungodly acts; immersed with hidden layers of compassion too, for an age-old nemesis. Decades of confrontation seem to have left both exhausted, weary.
Look at it another way: perhaps, they are caricatures of what humans may look hundreds of years from now, humanoids both, a man and a woman, in the throes of futuristic domestic strife.
It’s hard to believe, though, that Bhabha would lose an opportunity like one afforded by the Met, the most visited museum in the world, to not showcase the perceived atrocities of the US, especially under the Trump Administration, on Muslims from around the world. The two sculptures seem to be fluid US vs. Muslim identity, a grand, ageless confrontation, melded into posterity.
‘We Come in Peace’ is in all likelihood the persona of the US, which for some represent peace too, as can be envisaged by the Vishnu deity-like form of the five heads. By seeming to tower even above the skyline of Manhattan, the entry point for most immigrants to the US, there’s suggestion of the US vastly increasing its powers over all those who reside in and around it. It’s almost as if ‘We Come in Peace’ is standing guard to the Big Apple, against Muslim immigrants.
Yet, the grotesque, bestial shape of ‘Benaam’ is by no means a docile, overpowered, or overwhelmed woman or man. Over time, many a terrorist attack has been carried out by burqa wearing suicide bombers and impersonators, men and women. The protruding tail, like that of a devil, and the large hands, suggesting evil, are outstretched, stopped in its tracks to do further harm. It likely denotes religion sprouting different, dangerous entrails from roughly-hewn philosophies of hate and mayhem.
The likely confrontation between the two has changed their humaneness, distorted it beyond recognition, too. Yet there’s hope for redemption, as is evident from the calm posture of the sculpture which towers over the other. It’s the sign of a victor in command of the situation, the US, who has gotten the better of its enemy, read as ISIS, and radical Islamic terror. Yet, one can well imagine what happens if the 18-feet long ‘Benaam’ gets up and stands to its full height, dwarfing the 12 feet tall ‘We Come in Peace’. There might be a role reversal then.
The fight, perhaps, is not over yet.
In an interview, on April 16, when asked if a reference to God Vishnu in her works would be appropriate, given the multi-dimensional heads of ‘We Come in peace,’ Bhabha told News India Times that she has family in Bhopal, visits India, and has been influenced by sculptures of Indian deities and the Elephanta Caves, from an early age.
“This is not about immigration,” she said of her new works, but admitted on second thought, when asked if her works had been influenced by 9/11: “A lot changed after 9/11, we are still going through it. War changes everything.”
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)