Refugee women, children the focus of artist Humaira Abid’s “Searching for Home”

“Borders and Boundaries” (detail) by Humaira Abid. (Photo by Adeel Ahmed.)

Every little piece of Humaira Abid’s installation “Searching for Home” at the Bellevue Arts Museum is made of wood. The first piece in the exhibit is what looks like a barbed wire fence, crafted meticulously with verisimilitude from mahogany wood. It takes a lot of restraint not to touch the woodwork which resembles metal in every way.

Abid’s exhibit “Searching for Home” is an exploration of the refugee experience, of war and violence in the homeland that propels families to pack up and leave for a safer place. It specifically focuses on the stories of women and children, the unique burden and strength they hold throughout this journey from one land to another.

The themes in the exhibit are challenging and bold, inviting audiences to not only ponder what it means to pack up and leave home, but also what it means to do so as a woman, a mother or a child.

One wall is spattered with bullet holes. Hung on the walls are crooked portraits painted by Abid; they have a piercing, lifelike resemblance to the photographs she replicated.

The eyes are the most striking features of the portraits, which she reproduces from photographs taken at refugee camps.

“I was painting them and spending so much time on them, often I felt they were speaking to me,” said Abid of the subjects in her photographs. “I was starting to feel like I was talking to them. And I started looking at all the tiny details, their clothes, and their expressions. So it became very personal to me.”

One of the portraits depicts a young girl from Syria with a broken shoulder. Abid said that despite her broken shoulder and adverse circumstances, she wanted to capture the strength and determination in the girl’s face through the painting.

“Portrait no. 4” by Humaira Abid (Photo by Adeel Ahmed).

Another installation mimics the rubble from a mosque bombing. Piles of bricks — all made of wood — are scattered with men’s, women’s and children’s shoes and toys. The shoes are made of wood but have the texture of worn leather. Not far away, on a circular podium, carved suitcases stand next to a child’s backpack which is splattered in red.

One of the suitcases is open, to show wood carved with the suppleness of the clothing packed inside. Here, audiences are faced with the questions of who decides what to take, and what do they take, when families are forced to leave home.

Abid included a rug with the suitcases, which she says symbolizes how many families bring something with them that will remind them of home and their precious memories.

One of her most moving pieces is called “The World is Beautiful, and Dangerous Too.” Abid created a wooden swing, the seat adorned with a painting of a little girl swinging in a lush garden. In front of the swing is a pair of little shoes painted red. Abid says this piece was a response to the 2014 Peshawar school massacre conducted by the Taliban against the Army Public School in Pakistan.

One of the children killed was a girl. Abid couldn’t sleep when she first heard about the incident, poring over pictures of the massacre. The only picture she saw of the girl was of her shoes. The death and the violence against innocent children made Abid think of her own young daughter.

“I actually replicated my daughter’s shoes which were similar shape and size and similar age as the girl who got killed,” Abid said. “And then I actually painted my daughter on a swing, around a cactus garden.”

Abid said that the garden is meant to symbolize the lurking dangers that exist in our world. While the garden appears green and abundant, the thorns of the cacti are hidden, threatening to prick the little girl.

Abid highlights the lurking dangers that children face in countries undergoing strife and change. She says it is often men who tell the stories of leaving home, but women have a separate set of challenges they have to face while on the move.

One of her pieces includes a breast pump — raising the issue of what it feels like to nurse a child during the refugee journey. Hanging on the barbed wire fence is a woman’s pair of undergarments stained with red, evoking the question of how women cope with their periods in refugee camps.

For Abid, many of the stories she heard – either in person or through research – left an imprint on her.

“I think I feel very personal when something like that happens. I try to stand in the shoes of the affected ones and I sometimes even have dreams in which I myself am in that situation because it becomes so personal to me. As a human, as a mother, it all affects me. And when I feel that personal then I like to bring my personal point of view into that subject,” she said.

“The Stains Are Forever” by Humaira Abid. (Photo by Adeel Ahmed.)

Abid, who is based in Seattle, grew up in Pakistan and attended arts school in Lahore. Though she did well in all the four areas of specialization – sculpture, miniature painting, printmaking and painting – she majored in sculpture because it was the most challenging. In an Islamic country where three dimensional figures are often associated with idolatry, she was warned that it was a challenging and controversial medium. Sculpture — with its use of tools, materials and physical strength — was also a male-dominated field.

“My main reason for taking wood was not just to extend my challenge but also I felt there was a lack of women’s voice in that medium. I was passionate about women’s issues, talking about taboos and stereotypes and the topics that a lot of people are not comfortable talking about. What better medium than talking about them [than] in a male dominated medium?” said Abid.

The pieces in “Searching for Home” are technically and conceptually complex. The wooden barbed wire fence took her three years to perfect and put together.

At the same time, her work serves to tell the stories of women. One portrait placed within the open suitcase is of the daughter of a young mother from Zambia who moved to the United States after being separated from her children. She fought for custody of her two sons and one daughter before they all settled in the Seattle area. Abid said it was important that she highlight a local success story in the exhibit.

Abid is happy to see that the years she invested into her work are making an impact.

“Many people have said now when they will meet a refugee or an immigrant or people who have been in that situation they will look at them in a different way.”

‘Searching For Home” is thought provoking and awe-inspiring just in terms of the techniques Abid has used. But the way she has treated deeply challenging and currently relevant themes is also haunting and will linger in mind long after you’ve left the space.

“Searching For Home” is featured at the Bellevue Arts Museum until March 25, 2018.

Artist Humaira Abid. (Photo by Amber Hammad.)