Ripe with Subtext, Humaira Abid’s new exhibition ‘Searching for Home’

In this 28-minute First Friday episode of Artblog Radio, our Managing Editor, Wit, returns to the Center for Art in Wood to interview artist Humaira Abid. The show, Searching for Home, features the highly-detailed wooden sculptures and miniature paintings of Abid. Immerse yourself in this amazing exhibition February 7- April 18, 2020.

Humaira Abid. Photo Taken by Steven Miller, edited for Artblog by Morgan Nitz.
Humaira Abid. Photo Taken by Steven Miller, edited for Artblog by Morgan Nitz.

Returning to the Center for Art in Wood for a second First Friday podcast, Wit speaks with woodworker and painter Humaira Abid about her new exhibition–Searching for Home. The exhibition not only highlights the extraordinary level of skill that Abid exhibits in both painting and wood, but it also delves into the gravity of the global refugee crisis. The show is both a marvel and a necessity.

You can listen to Artblog Radio on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Thank you to Kyle McKay for composing Artblog Radio’s original podcast intro and outro!

Wit López: Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Artblog radio. I’m your host for today Wit López, and I am beyond excited to be accompanied today by Humaira Abid, an artist who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and is currently working and living out of Seattle, Washington. I’m sitting in the Center for Art in Wood, and the show is currently being installed for first Friday, and it is absolutely breathtaking.


The amount of mastery that goes into the work here is just, it’s mind blowing. Absolutely mind blowing. If you don’t know about the center, there is a small space in the gallery where there are objects that people can touch that’s called the “Petting Zoo,” and so what’s in the Petting Zoo currently is a small piece of barbed wire, two pacifiers and a pair of dressmakers sheers, which are pair of scissors.

And all of them, every single one of them is handmade out of wood, and they look true to life and they’re beautiful. The scissors are actually, you know, they’re actually articulated. They can open and close. They fit comfortably in the hand.

Um, and so I’m, I’m extremely impressed by the amount of craft that went into this work. Uh, the show is called. Searching for home, and it focuses on the refugee crisis, specifically around women and girls, and, uh, and how they’re impacted. So, Humaira, I want to welcome you. Thank you for allowing me to be in this space with your work, welcome!


Humaira Abid: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Wit López: Oh, no problem. So what got you into wood, at first?

Humaira Abid: So I went to art school against the wishes of my family. And when I was in art school, everybody warned me not to take sculpture as your major, being physically challenging for women. And I got so many warnings, I said, I have to see what’s so tough about it. [both laugh]


So I took it as a challenge. And when I was in the sculpture department, I noticed that they, they’re not many people working in wood, especially women, and I felt there was a lack of women’s voice. So I was passionate about women issues, so I thought, what better medium than a male dominated medium? So I, that’s why I chose it, and I continue, I continue to be passionate about it.

Wit López: That’s amazing. And it’s, it’s very obvious that you are extremely passionate about this because of the detail in this work. Like I am, I am completely flabbergasted. Like I, when I, when I saw the barbed wire hanging. I thought it was rusted barbed wire. And so, I mean, also, I need glasses… [both laugh]

So, but when I got close and I saw that the barbed wire is crafted out of wood, I was like, what? This is amazing. It’s really beautiful. And so. There’s a piece of it also in the Petting Zoo and it’s made out of walnut?

Humaira Abid: It’s mahogany.

Wit López: Mahogany. Okay.

Humaira Abid: It’s one of the works I’m very proud of, but it took me three years, a lot of research experimentation, but I was able to do it.

Wit López: Wow. That’s amazing. Three years?

Humaira Abid: Three years.

Wit López: So three years for the whole installation of the Barb wire, or three years doing the research too?

Humaira Abid: Yeah, so the first six months, it was mostly research, developing the idea, and then also convincing my assistant because he thought I was crazy. [both laugh] So then, uh, I, when he knew that I had to do it and there was no other way that he convinced me not to do it.

So then he agreed to do it, and we spent another six months doing different experimentation, how to make it work. And, but once it was figured out, then became just a matter of labor, you know? So it took us another year, but after like a year and a half, I just had like a small piece of barbwire, tiny piece, like 12 inches or something.

But then we had figured out, you know, the execution issues, and we knew how to do it. So then it was only the matter of another year, a year and a half to make, uh, on almost 400 feet of barbed wire.

Wit López: Wow. That is, that’s amazing. That is so amazing. It’s also a very long time. So you know, bless you for your dedication… [both laugh]

So I, while I was walking through the gallery, I noticed that there’s a pile on top of a ped- a short pedestal on the floor, It’s a pile of what looked like bricks and shoes. Uh, there’s also a couple of other things like, uh, a cell phone, a pair of broken glasses. Um, a few other things. Yeah.

Humaira Abid: Toys, yeah. So, yeah. So I, when I looked at, uh, images of home left behind, like a place which would be destroyed by, let’s say, war… and sometimes even living in Pakistan, they were a lot of attacks on mosques and many public places. So this was what I saw. Leftover broken buildings, bricks and leftover items from people who have been killed or wounded.

So I decided to do it. And also after a few years, I became known for, uh, transforming a very solid quality of word into very liquid like, very soft like. And so I said, hm, so what can I do different? [Wit laughs] So I said, hm, let’s do bricks! So I decided to go in the reverse, uh…. direction and make something hard. So how could I make it look really hard, like stone, or, you know, like a brick!

Wit López: Absolutely.

Humaira Abid: So, I started with a small installation and I kept expanding it. So I first did in 2014, a smaller version, and then I expanded it for next three years.

Wit López: Wow. It’s amazing. So for those of you who are listening, the piece looks like a pile of bricks and a pile of other things left behind by people, as Humaira said, but if you look at the bricks, the quality of the texture looks like a brick, like it looks like an actual brick. And the shoes, in juxtaposition to the brick, and the, the hardness of the bricks, as Humaira said, the shoes actually looked like they’re fabric! They actually look like they’re made out of, you know, shoe materials, cloth, leather.

It’s really amazing to see a flattened woman’s ballet shoe against a brick. And both of them are made out of wood. It’s amaze- like, you, you have to come see this in person to really see all of the work that went into that.

So how long did it take you to, uh, make those shoes?

Humaira Abid: Uh, different, um, period for different shows.

Uh, it’s so hard for me to give timeline because I’m often working on multiple pieces. So it’s hard for me to say, okay, I spent like three weeks on this piece. But yes, sometimes it’s a few days, sometimes a few weeks, and in some cases, few years. So, so, um, yeah, every piece has a challenge because they are unique. They’re all different.

Wit López: Definitely. No, they absolutely are. So I saw, um, on one of the pedestals close to the floor near the front window, looks like watering cans.

Humaira Abid: The tiffins, to carry lunch?

Wit López: Yes, yes

Humaira Abid: So we had those in Pakistan to carry lunch. So I saw them growing up. We had two at home, also. Whenever someone was admitted in hospital, or going on a trip, we would pack food for them.

So this, uh, in my mind felt very, very, uh, relevant to the theme of migration and journey. So I did 23, there are 23 in number, and instead of food, you can see there are some syringes, and medicines and pacifiers, which also represent, you know, kind of difficulty of the journey if you have any medical condition, if you have a young child.

Um, so just portraying all the difficulties and challenges of a journey. Especially for refugees, for immigrants who are moving from one place to another, there is a limitation, how much they can take with them. So it’s just a representation, symbolic representation of all the things they can carry and they cannot.

Wit López: Hmm. Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing.

Humaira Abid: Thank you.

Wit López: Absolutely. It’s mind blowing [Wit laughs]. I’m sitting here, I’m just thinking about it. Because, yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I feel like a lot of times people don’t think of when it comes to a journey, you mentioned the medication and the syringes. And what we think of journeying, a lot of times it ends up being people who are able bodied and well that we think of immediately when we think of journeying.

So we don’t think about the difficulty that people who are disabled and sick might have, even though they too need to journey sometimes.

Humaira Abid: And especially for women. I mean. I was, when I was doing my research, I couldn’t find information on women challenges.

Like what if they had a young child, they were pregnant, or even if they had menstrual cycle, what did they do to get by that time? So I’ve, and then I said, okay, I can’t find this, these answers. Maybe I need to go talk to women who have been migrated from, especially refugee women because their situation is different.

They certainly have to leave often and they have such a limitation of what they can take with them. So I went to some centers and I talked to them and I remember one of the refugee centers for women in Pakistan where we have a lot of refugee women from Afghanistan.

Some of them said, well, they didn’t even have time to wear their shoes. They just had to run. They had nothing at all. And they had to cross borders, so they were on the run for days. And, uh, their superintendent index center said, we have received some women covered with blood. Because when they had their menstrual cycle, they had actually literally nothing.

Wit López: Wow.

So I mean, this does you about the struggles of women, you know,

Wit López: Absolutely.

Humaira Abid: …and it was often the male member of the house who gets to tell the story, who also gets to make the decision where they can take with them if they are moving as a family.

So I have always been interested in women issues and what the women’s side of the story.

Wit López: Absolutely.

Humaira Abid: So this is my attempt on telling those stories, which might otherwise not have been told. Or not as much. You know, for example, the situation of rape, and child molestation, and women molestation, in refugee camps as well as at the time of war, nobody is really talking about them.

So if you’ll say it’s a 30 feet long barbwire fence, but at one point there is an underwear hung, which has a red stain on it, it is to bring attention to the big issue of rape. Which is one of the biggest crimes of war.

Wit López: Absolutely.

Humaira Abid: And if you read women’s stories, there is a book card, um, “A Kettle For a Son.” It’s stories of women who are in refugee camps in Kenya, and they often talk about they were raped when they were running at the time of war, and then at the border they were raped when they came to refugee camps. They were raped by the locals. So it’s like their, torture…. or their struggles, never ended, and they, they were- they were being used, or they were being misused over and over, just for being… women! Just being considered weak.

Wit López: Absolutely. That’s, it’s terrible. It’s a really terrible state of how folks are treated in refugee camps. A place that’s supposed to be… shelter and a, a sanctuary almost. Away from the violence. To only be put into a space where they continue to experience violence.

Humaira Abid: Yeah.

Wit López: So what made you choose the theme of “Searching for Home?”

Humaira Abid: So I, my parents were refugees as, as kids, at the time of partition between India and Pakistan. They moved from India to Pakistan with their family. Um, so I grew up hearing stories of migration, and then when I was growing up, um, until 2013, Pakistan was on top of the list for taking maximum number of refugees.

It still is in top five, uh, mostly from Afghanistan, and some neighboring countries. So growing up I saw a lot of refugees around me struggling, trying to make home again. And then I migrated to U.S. uh, about 12 years ago. And when I moved here, I started thinking about this a little bit more because whenever I visited Pakistan, everybody here would say, Oh, you are going back home.

And at that time, after few years, I started feeling like this was my home too, in Seattle and in U.S. So I started this study, that dialogue in my mind, what’s home for people? Is it a place where you are born? Or is it a place you feel you belong? So that started this conversation at beginning of this year, and I decided to talk about different aspects of it from uh, refugees, from an immigrants point of view….

Uh, for me it was out of choice, but for a lot of people, it’s not out of choice. They have to leave their home, leave everything behind and make their life in a new home again, or, or they’re in search of a home again.

Wit López: Absolutely. Absolutely. Wow. Wow, thank you for explaining that. I appreciate it. So on another pedestal on the floor, are luggage…. or…. bags that people would use to carry… something.

There’s even a bundle, a tied bundle, uh, the detail in those, those items, the fact that the wheels on the bottom of the suitcase actually work is amazing. The, the carving- the flower carvings into the blouse that’s folded inside of a suitcase. Amazing. That takes a lot of skill and a lot of thought. What……

Because I see, I’ve seen other things carved… I’ve seen other people carve things. There’s plenty of woodworkers and sculptors working in wood in the world, but sometimes you get a piece that’s made and it doesn’t open, right? It’s a suitcase, but it doesn’t actually have a latch that opens. The latch is just carved onto it, or, or it’s a bag, but there’s nothing inside of the bag, It’s just a bag carved by itself.

So what, uh…. what was the thought process behind creating a piece of luggage where the wheels actually work and a piece of luggage that can actually open to reveal carved wooden clothing inside of it? What was that thought process?

Humaira Abid: So I really give some credit to my miniature painting training, too, in art school. I took sculpture as my major, but all three minors I took miniature painting. Because these were the two mediums I was mostly interested in. So in miniature painting, I learned details, I learned patience. And this helps me even when I’m making sculpture. Um, and details are important for me. And because I got my training for patience from miniature painting, so I can spend a lot of time and do all the details.

So I think both of my mediums help each other in a, in a, in a way that, you know, is to my benefit and about, uh…. suitcases and why one is open. In the beginning I actually thought about making bags, different kinds of bags that people carry when they are moving. Sometimes it’s a very small bag, sometimes there’s some medium size, but there is such a limitation where they can take with them and I, I wanted to keep it as a like a secret, like because everybody has their own choice where they can take with them.

But after doing some interviews and research, I found out that there is no secret to it. All they can take with them is, you know, some clothes, some items of daily use, and maybe an item to remind them of home and their family, or there are some memory. So I decided to make one open suitcase because there is no secret in it, what they can take with that. Because when I was talking to them and I was asking this question, what could you bring with along when you were moving? It was all similar.

Wit López: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for explaining that.

Humaira Abid: Yeah. You’re welcome.

Wit López: You mentioned your background in miniature painting. Will this exhibition have any of your paintings in it? Any of these miniatures?

Humaira Abid: Yes. So, uh, for past few years, since I continue to be passionate about miniature painting and sculpture, I decided to blend them. 2007 was the first time I started planning miniature painting and sculpture. And, uh, for past few years I decided to push the boundaries of my mediums.

So I’m doing, especially for this year also, there are, they are mostly, they are actually, initially there were 7, now they are 10 installations. And in my installation work, I often combine sculpture and miniature painting. So even in the suitcase you will see they will be a small painting. Uh, you didn’t see it, the go, we’re still installing the work.

And then there are some pieces which are like rear view mirrors, but they have paintings, paintings of, uh, burning homes when they are leaving behind next leg. The trouble is the misery that they had to go through. And although it’s probably left behind, but it leaves such a, such an, you know, big mark on them, and their life, and their experience, that it becomes part of their life.

Like whenever they look back, it becomes like a memory for them. So I have some of those works. There is another piece which is like a swing, and the swing is carved out of wood and it’s hung from ceiling, but then there is a painting on the flat side of a young girl who is surrounded by a cactus garden.

So from a distance, it looks like a very lush, very pretty garden. But actually it’s a cactus garden, which has thorns in it. [Wit laughs] And the title is, “The World is Beautiful and Dangerous too.” [Wit laughs]

So it’s like no matter how safe of a world you give to your kids, it’s still dangerous. Even in U.S., you know, you know about the shootings in schools…..

Wit López: Absolutely.

Humaira Abid: ….and then there was a big shooting in Pakistan few years back in which over 140 young kids were killed by Taliban.

Wit López: Oh my goodness…

Humaira Abid: …so some of my works are inspired by, are affected…. I was deeply affected by that incident. And that’s when I started working on those. So they talk about the, you know, ttheat mass murder at that time and young kids, you know, innocent kids…

Um, so yeah, some of those works combined sculpture and miniature painting. I, I tried to blend them together, not just to push the boundaries of mediums, but also to enhance, viewers experience.

Wit López: It. Absolutely does. That’s what I think. I mean, the difference in the two media. Can absolutely ex-, uh, impact, the viewers experience. Thank you for explaining that.

So you mentioned that your first time blending miniature paintings and sculpture was in 2007.

Humaira Abid: Correct. So I went to India for residency, and I’m also interested in duality of meanings. And while I was in India, I learned that there is a word “istri,” which they use for women and wives, “Istri”.

And we use that word for smoothing iron in Pakistan. So I’d say, wow. I mean, why would they call a woman “istri,” you know, when he was there to iron clothes, and I started asking people, so they were not 100% sure because it’s a very old historical word, but they thought probably it was a job of a woman to iron clothes, and that’s how she got that name.

So I said, wow, that gave me an opportunity to combine. So I carved smoothing items out of wood, and I made miniature paintings based on women issues. And place them on the flat side. So that’s how I combine the first time.

Wit López: Wow.

Humaira Abid: So since then I have been thinking about how can I do it more, or how can I, you know, do it on larger scale and push the boundaries even more.

So this series is a good example, but I have done it in installation based work.

Wit López: Definitely. How do you feel that your practice has shifted or changed or expanded in the past 13 years since that first show? I know you mentioned things getting larger, larger scale. But have there been any other shifts for you?

Humaira Abid: Uh, yes. So um, one thing, I’ve told myself that my new work should be better than my previous work. [Both laugh] So, it’s a challenge I’ve given to myself, so it’s not easy. So yes. So I keep on pushing the boundaries, of medium and concept, both. Um, so I, I keep exploring new ideas, new relevant themes, for example.

I mean, you know, the refugee and immigration, this is still very relevant. So I started working on this series, uh, after 2014, like 15, 16, and then I had a show in 17, and then we decided to add more installations. I had a lot of discussions with my curator then decided to tour the show. So at that time I thought, okay, I need to keep my work relevant and still, because this issue continues.

So then I decided to add, for example, I, I did, I did paintings of girls in refugee camps. And then I said, okay, I need to do paintings, of course, now in detention centers. And then, you know, after that, initially it was some countries, and then we started hearing about what’s happening with Rohingya Muslims in Burma (Myanmar), and then what’s happening in now China.

And the recently hearing about, uh. Detention centers and camps in India. So it’s kind of spreading rather than, you know, being improving. So this situation, which is sad, but then as an artist, I feel it’s my responsibility to highlight these issues. So I’m focusing on, um, by expanding the works and adding more works into the series.

Wit López: That’s great. Um, and I’m also, I’m glad that you’re highlighting these atrocities. That are happening and that you also feel that it’s your duty to make that statement. Uh, I think, I think that it’s important for artists to make statements when it comes to the sanctity of human life. So I’m, I’m glad.

Humaira Abid: Yeah. And also, you know, I feel as artists we have some advantage because through the beauty of our medium, you know, we can bring the audience closer. It makes it easier for them to open these conversations.

Wit López: Absolutely. So I noticed that while you’re also a painter, your wooden pieces are not painted. Many of them also don’t seem to have a finish on them.

They seem to just be the natural word. So is there a reason why as a painter also, that you choose to leave the woods natural and that you don’t have it, uh, finished?

Humaira Abid: So some of my work has, uh, just some preservative oil, some not even that. Um, when I am working on a series, I keep thinking, how can I, what can I do to make it more effective?

So sometimes that that kind of translates my decision and if I how I should leave it.

But yes, it’s my conscious decision that I’m not going to cover my work because my objects are recognizable objects. They are everyday objects like a pacifier, scissors, and I’m already carving them in wood. So if I paint them, then what am I doing different?

I mean the, the presence of grains makes it more unique, but gives it a voice, but also makes it more like a living, because wood is a living material. So it’s more relatable. Then also I use tones of wood to represent like, you know, if it’s a pine wood, it’s like a skin tone. And then if it’s a darker tone, I use sometimes darker tone for darker skin tone.

So it’s, it’s an interesting to see and for me, also in the process. But yes, I want to give respect to the medium, but also make it effective.

Wit López: Makes a lot of sense. Makes a lot of sense. And honestly, I. I personally love that it’s wood because it’s so, the shapes of what you have made are so true to life that seeing the grain of the wood in the shapes reminds you that this took some-, a lot of work.

It took someone’s education and time and patience to make these things. So this is amazing. I keep, I keep picking up the pair of dress makers sheers because I’m so. Impressed, I’m so impressed!

Humaira Abid: I like to surprise my audience, you know? [Both laugh] So, yeah. So I mean, because there are recognizable objects, things that you can relate to.

So the mind sometimes cannot wrap around. I mean, you can see grains, you know, it, it, but you can’t believe it and you want to touch it. So it’s like, you know, giving an ex, adding an extra element of surprise into the work. And I love that as an artist, to surprise my audience.

Wit López: it definitely is surprising. [Both laugh]

In a really, really wonderful way. Uh, so related to the show, do you have any talks or any workshops? I know sometimes the center. Um, it gives artists a space to teach a workshop, or to do a talk or something.

Do you have any workshops coming up associated with this exhibition?

Humaira Abid: So the opening is on Friday, so Friday morning we’ll do a walk through and then on Saturday at PAFA, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, we have a talk, a panel discussion.

And then I will come back in April for the closing ceremony and then we have another panel discussion. And in between, the center, will organize some events around the themes. So, yes. There are programs. I would highly recommend checking the website of a center for art and wood for details and for the education programs and different talks.

Wit López: That’s great. That’s, that’s really exciting. I’m definitely looking forward to these talks and to the workshops that are going to be surrounding this exhibition that the name of the exhibition, again, is “Searching for Home.” It is on February 7th- it opens on February 7th, and it goes all the way through April 18th of this year, 2020!

So please come down to the Center for Art in Wood, which is located at 141 North 3rd street, in the old city section of Philadelphia. They’re usually open between Tuesday- Friday from 11 to 5, and Saturdays, 11 to 6. Please come down and see “Searching for Home” by Humaira Abid.

Humaira, thank you so much for joining me today on Artblog radio, this has been an absolute pleasure, and to see your work being installed, to see the detail that went into it, and the amount of craft that you have, and brilliance is really amazing. It’s really amazing.

Humaira Abid: Thank you for having me, It was a pleasure talking to you!

Wit López: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to it. And folks come down here this Friday, February 7th for first Friday to see the amazing work, that’s here at the Center for Art in Wood.

Thank you to the center for allowing me to record in their space. You can listen to this podcast on Artblog’s website, you can also listen to it on Spotify and on Apple podcasts. That’s everything for today, y’all. Bye now!