Artist Humaira Abid Explores Pakistani and American Cultural Taboos

Searching for Home seeks to bring the refugee crisis to the center stage.

By Dani Janae | Pittsburgh City Paper
Humaira Abid. (Photo: Bellevue Arts Museum)
Humaira Abid has always been searching for home. She grew up in Pakistan after her parents immigrated there when they were young. Pakistan, at the time, was one of the top countries taking in refugees. Abid’s childhood was rife with stories of refugees’ struggle to make a home in a new place. In 2008, she moved to the U.S. and became an immigrant herself.

“Whenever I visited Pakistan, friends here would say, ‘Oh, you are going back home.’ So for them, my home was where I was born,” says Abid. “And it started a conversation in my mind: is home where you are born or is home where you feel you belong? Because around that time I felt like this was my home too.”

Running in conjunction with Contemporary Craft’s 50th-anniversary celebration is the opening of a new exhibit, Searching for Home, from Abid that examines conversations around immigration, displacement, and home. The show starts on April 9 and visitors can reserve timed tickets now.

Searching for Home seeks to bring the refugee crisis to the center stage. Jennifer-Navva Milliken, the curator of the show and artistic director of the Center for Art in Wood in Philadelphia says that the work focuses on the voices of women and girls who are the most vulnerable when discussing immigration.

Milliken supports and admires Abid and her work. “She’s courageous and she’s not afraid to give form to very, very difficult conversations,” says Milliken.

Being born in Pakistan, Abid’s journey to art was a challenging one. In her culture, careers like medicine and engineering are seen as the only respectable paths. So when Abid made the decision to go to art school, it was against the wishes of her family. She did try two years of pre-medicine, but struggled. She says she passed out at the sight of blood. Abid soon realized that art was her true passion and decided to follow it. Having a non-supportive family was hard.

“I remember my brother came to me and gave me a warning that if women got too much freedom, kids got too much freedom, women [would] start to wear sleeveless clothes and start smoking,” she laughs.

In Pakistan, there were four departments in the fine arts: painting, printmaking, miniature painting, and sculpture. Abid says that her teachers and others warned her not to take sculpture, but she was drawn to it regardless.

“There are additional challenges in Pakistan as 3D art is considered idols and worshipping, and it’s confused with religion,” says Abid. “So there was an additional challenge. I got so many warnings that I said, ‘OK, I have to see what’s so tough about it.’ So I took it as a challenge.”

There was also another reason Abid got into sculpture: there was a lack of women’s voices in the field, especially in wood sculpture. In Pakistan, woodworking was often only an art form tied to furniture making or construction. Abid wanted to bring “a woman’s point of view into a male-dominated medium.” Though she primarily works in wood, she also does the miniature painting — two forms of media she was told couldn’t be done together. Abid’s work often defies what she had been told was acceptable, and she takes warnings to not do something as challenges.

Much of Abid’s work features wood sculptures and often red stain. The stain mimics the look of blood for her more emotionally charged pieces. Using the red stain came after a period of personal struggle for her.

“The very first time I started using red in my color was after going through multiple miscarriages. At that time I had just moved to the U.S. I was trying to have this discussion or conversation with someone or friends, but nobody was willing to talk about this issue,” says Abid. “I remember asking a friend, a close friend; she had personally gone through it as well, and she wouldn’t talk to me about it. She ended up saying, ‘you know, women usually don’t talk about it because once you openly tell about it, people start blaming the woman.’”

Abid adds that topics of personal pain or suffering are avoided in American culture, so she decided to make a whole series about miscarriages. Red, she explained, was not just a color of love. It is a popular color for wedding dresses in Saudi Arabia, but it is also a color of mourning and death in some African countries. She wanted to bring that duality into the work.

“There is a symbolism behind it,” she says.

Humaira Abid. (Photo: Amber Hammad)

Abid’s work often deals with deeply personal topics like miscarriage or molestation. She says that she deals with these topics in her work, not just for her own personal catharsis, but to connect with other people around her that have been affected in similar ways. “I grew up hiding, not talking about issues,” says Abid. “There were so many taboos, including puberty, sex, even relationships, and, you know, even fertility issues, miscarriages. There were so many topics I saw not being talked about. Not talking about these issues is not resolving anything. So I decided to talk about it.”

Abid says that when she did her series on miscarriages, women and friends who were at first unwilling to talk to her about the subject showed up to her exhibit and cried. “I really feel we’re all made up of stories and not just the stories we tell to others and ourselves, but also the stories we hide,” she says. Telling these stories, especially the ones people want to hide, is important in her work.

Searching for Home opens April 9 at Contemporary Craft. Continues through

Aug. 21. 5645 Butler St., Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh. Free, donations accepted.

This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper. Click here to go to the original.

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