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The Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof Garden Commission: Huma Bhabha, We Come in Peace

Installation view of We Come in Peace (2018) for The Roof Garden Commission © Huma Bhabha, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Hyla Skopitz


Huma Bhabha, a Pakistani-American sculptor who makes apocalyptically dramatic sculptures, who is based upstate in Poughkeepsie, and who is now in her upper fifties, has made a strong bid to openly politicize, in a distinctly rough manner, the Roof Garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The roof garden is surely one of the most beautiful plein-air sites in New York, in a very wealthy neighborhood that has banished, or tired to banish, even the slightest appearance of social or ideological conflict. Fully ridding the Met of its historical ghosts, in the form of art produced by artists who many today would characterize as excessively privileged, is beyond the institution’s abilities. Yet the museum itself acknowledges the problem in its recent determination to popularize its image and broaden the background of both its artists and its audience.

Bhabha, who makes figurative art notable for its grotesqueries, is likely a part of the change. In this two-figure installation, she continues her penchant for a realism that, on consideration, seems pretty much done in by historical trauma--not to mention the cartoonish persona of the two figures. The title of the show, We Come in Peace, derives from a 1951 sci-fi film entitled The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which the aliens visiting earth promise the humans they meet with the words “We come in peace.” This sentence underlies both the irony and pathos of Bhabha’s confrontational, and highly interesting, double portrait.

Detail of We Come in Peace (2018) for The Roof Garden Commission © Huma Bhabha, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Hyla Skopitz

But the use of the single-sentence reassurance in Bhabha’s rooftop work feels utterly ironic. The two figures, the first a towering 12-foot, ramrod-straight presence with several faces feels threatening beyond words, while the second, a prostrate figure, its body hidden in the folds of a black robe and trailing a thick stream of excrement, enacts the abjection power seems to demand. The relations of the two people-the forbidding, upright alien and the downcast hidden figure-- feel hopelessly entangled in mutual antipathy.

And the merde that flows out from under the black cape of the recumbent figure dehumanizes both the figure and the interaction between the two. So the scenario looks more like an exercise in humiliation than a conversation. Given the intense vulgarization of the two personages, we find the work moving from irony to anger at the way the helpless are forced to behave: we take stock of the duo’s unspoken antipathy in their physical presentation. The prostrate figure’s overly large hands hints at a larger than life presence, but the black robe covers its body completely, so that we have no idea of its looks or gender.  Nor do we have a sense of specific culture; the figure might be Islamic, or it might not.

Installation view of Benaam (2018) for The Roof Garden Commission © Huma Bhabha, courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Hyla Skopitz

Emphasizing aggression, the tall,five-headed figure, also titled We Come in Peace, stands in military fashion over the hidden figure named Benaam, or No Name. Bhabha has a tendency here to literalize the political issues she is exploring--even if we are not sure what the issues are! Her animus toward the arrogance of power is expressed with disdain for subtlety. The cartoon-like presence of the two opposing figures is emphasized by the alien faces on all sides of the tall statue’s head, while the reclining position of the person with no name is made clear in a social sense with its stream of excrement. Politics in art today turn to visual caricature when imaging the opposition; but sometimes, as happens in Picasso’s Guernica (1937), the violence of historical events is stylized to a point where it becomes beautiful. The grimacing faces found on the head of We Come in Peace look like they are mimicking the alien countenances found in Star Wars. All the faces in Bhabha’s martinet radiate cruelty, while the posture of the figure who goes unnamed is unpleasantly spineless.

But maybe the physical depiction of extreme malaise is exactly what Bhabha wants. It is clear whether unequal relations in public displays of power demand images of unequal standing, and one of the simplest means of doing this is to skew the imagery toward extreme caricature. This is what Bhabha has done; the two figures counterbalance each other in the horrifics of their physiques--one in a false exaltation of omnipotence, and the other in an equally false portrayal of disgrace and extreme privation. As for the great upright figure, standing at some distance from Benaam, the tall sculpture communicates the odd mixture of force and malice that characterizes dictatorial presence in any culture at any time.

His business is to look menacing, and he does in fact do so, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt, dark pants, and a threatening scowl on each of his several faces. Adding to the general sense of an empty relations, Benaam’s moral destitution feels repellently theatrical--even without our knowledge of the figure’s looks or gender--as we consider its prone position facing an outsized nemesis. In their unspoken contest, the two figures are playing a zero-sum game: one holds absolute power, while the other is destitute of power. This is a heartless spectable.


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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