TRIUMPH: Against Time by Huma Bhabha at Baltic Gateshead

Thank you. Thank you to the helpful assistant at Baltic Gateshead, who directed me to the exhibition Against Time by Huma Bhabha. Not quite believing I was back at a real-life gallery and having booked my slot intending to wander around The Making Of Husbands- Christina Ramberg In Dialogue, I enquired about which floor it was housed on? ‘Floor 3’ came the reply, ‘But make sure you look in on Floor 4 too.’ I visited 3 first, marvellous, then made the short Journey to 4, knowing fine well that it’s the loftiest, most impressive space of the lot, yet there was no preparation for what presented itself in front of my eyes.

An exhibition? No. An otherworldly film set? No. It is a dystopian world of curiosity to unravel; it is a sheer TRIUMPH. When Bhabha moved to America to study fine art, she became enamoured by the height of skyscrapers, and this scale is present in this show. It manages to make you minuscule, like a tiny mouse. That’s not because the art is always large, some is or on deep plinths, but it is a power fuelled force and unseen atmosphere that is impossible to ignore. Huma was born in Karachi and grew up near the beach, which comes through in her work, searching the colours, textures and architecture of desert landscape. Photography, drawing, collage, and sculpture feature heavily as a means to display her loves of history, cinema, in particular, science fiction and horror.

War, colonialism, and displacement are the themes that ring out. The boundless creator has brought to life her fantastical army, a tribe of sculptures, often produced with a mixture of materials like clay, Styrofoam, wood, plastic, and chicken wire, and as a rare treat and witnessed in the tallest blue object, Receiver, bronze. Not human, robot, or animal, but complex species, they are a lost civilisation that has evolved over the years. Maybe they are forced to live under another leader’s rules, or maybe they are victourious in their war, internally and externally.

A running motif is feet, stemming from a bloody film the artist watched where a man’s were blown off and only his high tops were left behind. Cast in bronze here, originally for an outdoor commission, they also feature in two prints, where a desolate, dirt-coloured sand scene houses them. Giving the impression of the consequence of battle, the size of the body parts is colossal. Photogravure prints hang in the back alcove and imply a change of tone. Enlarged black and white shots of Karachi’s construction sites and desert use India ink and paint to develop and transform them into foundations for sculptures, allowing the mind to imagine what might be placed there. In Bhabha’s head, feet.

Atlas constructs broad rubber tires mangled on the floor. The after-effects of fight and struggle, a representation of the mess and devastation caused, not just representing equipment, but everything connected to destruction. Heavy machinery is presented in print, where a dominant white skull is layered over the top and takes up the whole frame. This tells us that thought and decisions come from living things and not the weapons that destroy.

Skulls, my fave, are a running statement. A wall of nine sit together as a pack and are positively looking straight at you, showing that the unknown is always watching from afar. One is hiding as the shade from blinds covers their face, and red light shrouds another, a warning that danger is ahead. Bringing a touch of street art into the fold, lacquered bronze sculpture, The Joke takes a step back and grins at how things can farcically escalate so quickly in life, laughing at the damage we are responsible for.

Huma wanted to show the lost relationship between humans and animals, which exhibition Animalesque explored back in March. Made with clippings from wildlife calendars, featuring elephants, wolves, bears, and dogs, five collages create skulls once more. Once the outline was drawn and painted, layers were added. It enabled me to consider where is the animal's place in this world; they don't have a voice, some have strength, but we are their voice. Taxidermy and Egypt influenced Cargo Tomb, linking the unknowns between life and death.

To say I adored Against Time is an understatement. Apocalypse, skeletons, theatre, vastness, I could go on. There was nothing that I didn’t get on board with. It’s highly visual, in the sense that I didn’t need to dig to find understanding or union; it shouted out with vigour, forging a nice contrast to Ramberg below. Travel to the Baltic again to consume all they have. It left me with a reminder of the world-class outpourings we graciously welcome to the gallery and Newcastle upon Tyne.

19 September 2020- 21 February 2021

Article by Beverley Knight