A barbed-wire fence supported by cedar posts establishes Humaira Abid’s “Searching For Home” at Bellevue Arts Museum. The exhibition showcases the internationally renowned artist’s superior woodcarving skills and her passion for telling the stories of women and girls. In her first solo museum exhibition, Abid transports visitors to the reality of 65 million people worldwide who have fled their homes through a collection of carvings and paintings.
“Humaira’s work usually represents a harnessing of traditional disciplines, woodcarving and the Mughal miniature painting tradition,” Curator Jennifer-Navva Milliken said. “An engagement with those traditions and subverting them and using them to address societal problems, taboos, stereotyping and oppression.”
“Fragments of Home Left Behind” is one of seven installations within the show. Several small, framed portraits hang haphazardly on a damaged wall. Her work upends the miniature painting tradition, which calls for decorative depictions that are pleasing to the eye. Abid created the portraits from Associated Press photos of Somali and Middle Eastern refugees at various camps. The stark images convey the graveness of their circumstances.
“The World is NOT Perfect” is a mound of fallen bricks occupying a corner of the gallery. Amid the rubble of a decimated home are personal items, such as well-worn shoes, glasses and toys. The bricks are hand-carved from mahogany, left untreated then sandblasted. Milliken described the work as projecting a sense of loss, particularly because the human figure isn’t present.
Many of the pieces in the show are stained red to resemble blood. Milliken said it’s to remind the viewer the items are the remnants of a traumatic event.
Abid’s openness about the refugee crisis and the unique experience of women goes against her cultural upbringing. Born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan, Abid said she was discouraged from talking about issues such as puberty, sex and motherhood. She’s passionate about using her platform as a starting point for dialogue.
“I like to start conversations. I like people when they open up and share their stories because I believe when you share your story it encourages another person to share their story."
“No discussion of menstrual periods. Most of the women found out about that the day they started,” Abid said. “I like to start conversations. I like people when they open up and share their stories because I believe when you share your story it encourages another person to share their story and encourages them to open up.”
Abid has been going against the grain since her decision to attend art school. While her late father was neutral on the matter, the rest of her family was against her decision. They didn’t support her initially but eventually came around as Abid excelled. She received a bachelor of fine arts in miniature painting and sculpture from the National College of Arts in Lahore in 2000. Her works have been exhibited in galleries and museums in Malaysia, Pakistan and Germany. She’s received numerous awards, and in 2016 her work was the subject of a Northwest Emmy-nominated documentary produced by KCTS.
Abid chose sculpture and specifically the medium of wood because of the absence of women’s point of view in the field. She said she was discouraged from sculpture, which only made her pursue it with more fervor. The artist is the first to admit she’s persistent and up for a challenge. Her tenacity paid off, and in “Searching For Home” it manifests itself in all of her work, particularly with the barbed-wire fence. Despite the appearance of being metal, the fence is mahogany. Abid used the wood for its rusted look and strength. It was a three-year process, which began with convincing her assistant in Pakistan it could be done in the first place.
She faced a similar trial and error when crafting the small black ants that appear throughout the show. They are made of epoxy putty and wire.
“I think one of my qualities that has helped me, I feel, is my hardworking nature,” Abid said. “I don’t give up easily.”
In 2008 she moved to the United States to be with her husband. The two have a 5-year-old. The children featured in “Searching” are around her daughter’s age. Abid explained why she focused on children in that age group.
“They are very vulnerable. They don’t know what’s happening. They’re going through that traumatic transition, and often they don’t understand what’s happening to them,” Abid said. “You can see on their faces how much confusion and trauma they have. And they’re not at that age that they learn to hide it, so you can see it visibly, and they still have some innocence.”
The Peshawar school massacre in 2014 in Pakistan had a profound effect on Abid and is the basis for “The Stains Are Forever.” Taliban militants killed 145 people; most were children. In the installation, a mop is sweeping 39 red-stained pacifiers and nine butterflies. Each symbolizes motherhood. Abid said the photos of school officials cleaning up pools of blood had a stronger impact on her than the fallen bodies.
“The management decided to open the school because they wanted to make a statement that we are not scared of you,” Abid said. “They’re trying to wash the stains, which are never going to be washed away. It is going to stay forever.”
A lifelike set of luggage sits in the center of the gallery. The installation is inspired by conversations she had with refugees living in the Pacific Northwest and Pakistan. The zipper on a suitcase and a sentimental rug show her punctilious approach to sculpture. The show is the latest example of her honed talent and an unrelenting will to fulfill a vision.
In the exhibition, the ordinary is beautifully exalted, further emphasizing that what unites us is far greater than what makes us dissimilar. If we were forced to flee from the country we’ve always known — either from political strife, war or natural disaster — our homes could easily mirror Abid’s “The World is NOT Perfect.” Few traces of our former lives would be left behind.
WHAT: " Humaira Abid: Searching For Home”
WHEN: Sept. 22 – March 25, 2018
WHERE: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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