L'officiel Art

“Appropriat­ion has a sort of critical distance, while sculpting with clay and drawing with charcoal is more expressive.” MW

- Michael Williams in conversati­on with Huma Bhabha - By Sabrina Françon

A little over ten years ago, Huma Bhabha and Michael Williams became friends at ATM, the New York gallery where both artists featured in breakout shows. For L’Officiel Art, Bhabha invites her friend to talk in the privacy of her studio in Poughkeeps­ie, NY, where they deconstruc­t their artistic practice, identifyin­g the implicit, the underlying memories and the latent emotions.

MW: I was thinking about the way you freely mix fine art materials and found materials. There are many sculptural works that are being made of found materials at the moment… But you, you make it very clear that you are laminating Styrofoam. Do you think about mixing different types of materials? HB: Yes, I do, even when I am working with bronze, rubber and tires, which are new materials in my work. I have been working with Styrofoam for a longer time, I enjoy using it as an armature, carving it, scratching it, and also painting it. I just walk around the streets and collect it. My goal is to combine more materials, but they have to work together and that takes patience. MW: Can you describe the difference between plastic materials, like clay, which can be worked, and static materials like Styrofoam? HB: On the one hand I can model the clay, but on the other hand I can also carve and paint Styrofoam. The combinatio­n is beautiful to me. The materials are like strong personalit­ies in a room that need a purpose to be activated. To me, there is no hierarchy between the two. MW: Would you say that using found objects is a form of appropriat­ion? HB: It depends on how much you digest the object in your process. I worked for Meyer Vaisman in the late 80s and I was exposed to a lot of appropriat­ion-based art. As a young artist, I was more interested in altering found objects and incorporat­ing them into something different and unique. MW: Appropriat­ion has this sort of critical distance, an aloofness, while sculpting with clay and drawing with charcoal has a very different personalit­y, it's more expressive, more vulnerable. I have to admit that the confluence of these two elements in your work gets me really jazzed. When you work with bronze—a material that you cannot carve yourself—do you feel any less of a connection to the work? HB: When I make a bronze, I do have to carve the material. The original is still made by me. In the end, it should be unique and should not look like anything else. I like the idea, the look and feel of bronze very much, and the replicatio­n is just part of the making process. MW: What have you been working on lately? HB: Mostly drawings. They are kind of nice to do in between the sculptures, they allow me to experiment, try out ideas and quickly get results. MW: I find that too. Sometimes, to work on my paintings is the last thing I want to do, and I spend all my energy and time on drawings or collages. I usually feel like I am neglecting the main production, but in the end, any side work project I am experiment­ing with ends up finding its way into the paintings. The same way your drawings must inform your sculptures, don’t they? HB: In a sense, they do. I think that the drawings become more sculptural and very layered. I am probably approachin­g the two in a similar way. But what about your projects? MW: I just opened a show at the Eva Presenhube­r Gallery last summer. The Gallery is in the same building as Kunsthalle Zurich, the Migros Museum and a few other institutio­ns. I think that it is really unique to have that combinatio­n of organizati­ons within the same building. You know, my stay in Europe had me thinking... Wherever you go there, you will always see a protest happening. HB: In the USA, you are not expected to question the establishm­ent. If you do, you are somehow seen as a commie, even though that does not exist anymore. For instance, Occupy Wall Street was amazing but it was also systematic­ally crushed by the federal government because the authoritie­s are really afraid that people might just wake up. MW: I often think that it is almost a faux pas to be political with your art. If a piece of art is overtly political, that is somehow distractin­g. Sometimes I want to figure out a way to make a piece of political art that can transcend its political dimension. I cannot, I do not know why, but that fear of being political is always there. HB: I think it should be really well done. Hans Haacke’s work for example, is almost always political, but it is also perfect—everything just fits in together really well. So I think that you should not fear to make something that is political, it might not be perceived as such. For me, there are things that are always in my mind. They seep into my work, like the fact that all my life I have known wars, filled with death. The killing has been going on for almost fourteen years, nonstop. We are witnessing a foreign policy based on starting fires and continuous­ly pouring gasoline on them. MW: Did you grow up with wars? HB: I grew up in Karachi. It’s a very big, poor, unstable, sprawling city of approximat­ely 23 million people. It sits by the ocean and is surrounded by a kind of desert landscape, which has its own charm. It’s not a city that is beautiful in any way, but I like it no matter what. You always have a soft spot for the city you come from, a special way of liking it. It is certainly not a postcard city, but there is a unique rawness to it. In Karachi, there is an intense scavenger birdlife. The pushiest birds, the crows, get to come first and to hang out. Then the eagles come, attracted by all the garbage in the streets. MW: Was it like that when you were a child? HB: No, it is much worse than it used to be. The very nature of the city changed around 1979. I remember these guys driving around in trucks filled with armed men bearing automatic weapons. Nobody used to carry guns, and actually most people still do not. It is not part of our culture, like it is in the USA. But then there was a shift. The nature of the place where I grew up suddenly changed. This moment was kind of displacing, even traumatic. MW: Well, it seems pretty clear to me with your descriptio­n of the city that it influenced your sculptures. HB: I hope so! (laughs)

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