Pakistan-born visual artist Humaira Abid moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2008. Her work centers on refugee experiences, societal upheavals, and the unique plight of women and girls in these harrowing situations. She's also the Mercury cover artist of the week
In our interview, we discuss suffering, resilience, and disrupting male-dominated spaces.
Your work (and life) is dedicated to challenging stereotypes and normalizing women’s experiences, can you tell me about choosing the (thus far) male-dominated medium of wood carving?
I chose wood as my primary material for bringing a woman’s voice and point of view to this male-dominated field. Growing up in a patriarchal society, where we were discouraged from talking about many topics, I was always interested in women’s issues, stereotypes, and taboos. My family was relatively open-minded; girls were treated equally to boys and had all the same opportunities. Maybe that’s why I was allowed a voice and my own point of view, which led to this passion—to give a voice to others who are not able to speak or stand up for themselves.
My father allowed me to question if I didn’t agree to rules or customs; much of the time it was about social pressures and boundaries that are imposed more on women than on men. So it was natural for me to choose to focus on such concepts—what better way to do that than by using male-dominated mediums?
The miniature paintings of India’s Mughal Empire might be unfamiliar to many, can you talk about your exposure and their influence on your work?
In school, I also learned miniature painting (another historically male-dominated discipline), which involves painstaking work with brushes as small as a single hair. Miniatures are small in scale, two-dimensional, precise, and highly finished. We learn to make our own colors, brushes, and paper. We are taught all the basics but then encouraged to push the boundaries, find our own style/voice, and create contemporary work.
I combine miniature painting with carved sculpture and installation to create surreal environments that contain many shades of meaning and symbolism. Sculpture and miniature painting seem to be very different, but that is not my experience of working in them. The intensive labor, precision, and fine aesthetic values of miniature painting have helped to improve the execution of my sculptures. This penchant for two mediums has brought a resounding truth to me, that all art has a common ethos—to express an idea through a particular visual approach.
Artists use a lot of strategies and tools to express their ideas, but they choose the style, material, or medium that best conveys the message. In some cases, like mine, it may be to push the limits of a historical approach or to combine unlikely materials. What results is a highly personalized expression formed from the coming together of medium and message.
Your work explores societal unrest, violence, and women’s struggles. Has relocating to the Pacific Northwest had an influence on your subject matter?
I was always interested and passionate about these issues. When I started traveling to other countries (while living in Pakistan) I realized all these issues are the same everywhere—just with a difference of scale. In the beginning of my career, my work and stories were more focused on South Asia but it's not the case anymore and since I live in the US (Pacific Northwest) my research and work also highlight local stories and issues as well as the rest of the world.
Your show Searching For Home developed from months of interviews with a wide variety of women who have fled their homes in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, and even the Pacific Northwest. The show was emotional and powerful, and I wonder, in retrospect, did the show develop as expected? Or were there any surprises along the path of interviews?
The Searching for Home series is very dear to my heart as my parents were refugees and I am an immigrant—which was initially my inspiration to create this series and share stories. The process of research and conducting interviews taught me a lot. Although the situations were different, they were still stories of suffering, displacement, resilience, and strength and there was always hope for a better future and safe home.
The show developed better than expected and the response was so good that many museums asked if they could host it too. It's now touring to different museums and I have also added more works in the series to continue the conversation since the refugee crisis has not been resolved, in fact, it has spread to many more countries and needs attention.
What is the symbolic importance of the white rose in this week’s cover art selection, Woman in Black?
This work is a reference to women’s situation in Afghanistan, especially after the recent takeover by Taliban. Women are required to wear black abayas, not able to go to schools/colleges as well as many more restrictions have been imposed.
I always paint women making eye contact, confronting the world, and showing their strength. This is the first time she is looking away, to show disappointment towards the world for not doing anything to help resolve the situation. Although she is disappointed but holding a white rose to represent innocence, purity as well as hope and peace for the future.
What’s on the horizon for you, creatively?
I have had an extremely busy year with solo and group shows, public art projects, international events and teaching. I am looking forward to taking a small break and then spending some time on experimentation and research so I can push the boundaries of mediums and concepts even more.
I do have two major public art projects in the pipeline for next year. My solo show Searching for Home is touring to different museums and will be on view at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane next year.
Follow and learn more about Humaira on Instagram.