Carved-wood artist reaches new heights with powerful new Bellevue Arts Museum show.
The first thing that confronts you when you walk into Pakistani artist Humaira Abid’s compact, powerful new show at Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) is a rusted barbed-wire fence with a pair of bloodstained panties hanging limply from it.
“Huh,” you may think. “So she has dropped her usual wood-sculpture wizardry for a found-materials installation.”
‘Humaira Abid: Searching for Home’
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Free First Fridays, through March 25, 2018. Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue; $5-$12 (425-519-0770 or bellevuearts.org).
The fence posts are scavenged cedar. But the barbed wire — stretching 7 feet high and 30 feet long — is, incredibly, carved mahogany. And the panties are carved pinewood.
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Abid’s work was a highlight of “Knock on Wood,” BAM’s 2014 survey of wood sculpture, and her exhibits at Seattle’s ArtXchange Gallery have repeatedly showcased her extraordinary command over her medium.
In BAM’s “Humaira Abid: Searching for Home,” however, the 40-year-old artist hits a new peak, combining technical prowess with fierce vision to produce charged political drama.
The seven pieces in “Searching for Home” respond in different ways to the multiple refugee crises of our times, especially as they affect women and children. They make it clear that while Abid is Seattle-based, she’s also a passionate global citizen.
“Borders and Boundaries” — as the barbed-wire piece is called — evokes refugee-camp confinement, of course. Another large installation, “Fragments of a Homeland Left Behind,” uses a plaster-treated surface to replicate a wall in a private home riddled with bullet holes. Five painful yet exquisite paintings of refugee children hang on it at crooked angles.
Abid is playing with Mogul miniature tradition in these paintings. “Mona, Age 5, Hassakeh, Syria” is especially arresting. The open gaze of its young subject, with her tangled hair and bruised lips, is both innocent and brutalized. Like its companion pieces, it’s based on an Associated Press photo. The whole exhibit is drawn from firsthand accounts of refugees who’ve settled in Seattle and Pakistan.
The title piece of the show is a pinewood installation consisting of three suitcases, a rolled carpet, a child’s knapsack, a pair of children’s sandals and a baby’s pacifier — all illusion-perfect, with the last three items conspicuously bloodied. One of the suitcases is open to reveal a button-down shirt, an embroidered blouse or dress, a toothbrush, toothpaste, pen and notebook, and a (painted) family photograph. The suitcase’s contents, carved in relief, are a tour de force.
Refugees, Abid noted at the show’s press preview last month, are limited in what they can take with them. It might be a family heirloom. It might be a photograph. “One thing, at least, that they can connect with the past.”
Even without such explanation, Abid’s pieces have a charged presence. But the texts accompanying them bring them to further life.
“The Stains Are Forever” depicts a push broom sweeping away a pile of bloodied pacifiers. It pays tribute to the victims of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. A 6-year-old girl, attending her first day at school, was among the 132 students killed. Abid’s young daughter was close to her in age at the time, and the atrocity hit Abid hard.
“What if it was my daughter?” she asks. “It could very easily have been my daughter.”
For all the intensity of her subject matter, Abid is humorously self-deprecating in person.
When asked if there was a chapter in her career predating her turn to wood-sculpting, she wisecracks, “Before that, there was a chapter when my family didn’t want me to go to art school!”
She eventually convinced them. After graduating with honors from National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2000, she immediately was invited to join the faculty. Her success helped turn around the opinion of her older brother.
“My brother did not believe in women working,” she laughs. “Now he’s the biggest feminist.”
Although she’s based in Seattle, she frequently visits Pakistan and maintains a studio there.
“Materials are more affordable back home,” she says. “I’m able to do more in a smaller time period than I can do here.”
Abid’s gift for turning pine, mahogany and tulip wood into any kind of artifact she wants hints at something uncanny in her connection with her materials. But there’s nothing mystical about it.
“I primarily work in wood,” she declares, “because it’s primarily a male-dominated medium, and I thought it was lacking in a female voice.”
As for how she came to live in Seattle in 2008, she has a snappy answer.
“I blame my husband,” she quips. They met in Pakistan while he was there visiting his family. Things clicked between them in a big way, but she hadn’t realized that he lived in the U.S. and was committed to staying there. (He’s a principal engineer with T-Mobile.) After wrestling with her decision, she agreed to the move: “I felt at that time that a person is more important than a location.”
There’s some wistfulness in her answer. Both her parents have died in the years since.
While the circumstances of her displacement aren’t traumatic in the way that refugees’ plights are, she’s committed to being open about them.
“I grew up in a society where we were discouraged to talk about issues,” she says. “When you share your story, it encourages another person to share their story.”