A monolithic creature towers 12 feet (4 meters) over a crouched hybrid being, whose prostrate pose suggests worship or perhaps submission. The standing colossus grimaces and intimidates, yet this site-specific commission is titled We Come in Peace. Whether or not that’s true is left up to the viewer’s imagination.
In an interview with Shanay Jhaveri, The Met’s assistant curator of South Asian art, creator Huma Bhabha explains that, despite its menacing presence, the dominant figure bears the title of We Come in Peace to quell the visceral threat that visitors may perceive. Jhaveri refers to the bowing giant as “Benam,” the Urdu word for “without name” or “nameless.” With two humanoid hands and a tail emerging from a black cloak shrouding its head and face, Benam could be anyone or anything.
“Throughout her practice, Bhabha has proposed the body as a site of exchange,” the museum notes. “The figures here communicate notions of pain and survival: they can be read as both aching and defiant, in agony and unassailable, subjugated and valiant. Bhabha’s work has always had a political exigency and shown a responsiveness to social concerns; We Come in Peace is no exception. It is also a project in dialogue with art history, reflecting Bhabha’s interest in art across time and geography. In these sculptures, one might find references to works that range from ancient African and Indian sculpture to modern creations.”
Though rendered unidentifiable by their conglomerate forms, both beings are reminiscent of the cross-cultural, cross-historical breadth of treasures exhibited in the galleries below. Constructed from ephemeral materials including cork, Styrofoam, and clay, then cast in bronze so that they may withstand three seasons of exposure to the Manhattan elements, these sculpted behemoths appear ancient, if not timeless, worn and torn by the politics of their existence.
“It’s an anti-war narrative,” the artist explained in the exhibition catalogue. “[The body] is a monumental cocoon with the potential for rebirth, and at the same time the giant black plastic shroud is a monument to the unnamed victims of war.” Indeed, the standing figure is deeply scarred by the ways in which it has moved through time and space.
Poised without definitive context, Bhabha keeps the narrative of We Come in Peace open to interpretation. Will they help us? Hurt us? Assist us? Enslave us? What they are and why they’re here is unknown.
We Come in Peace will remain on view through October 28, 2018, on the Iris and Gerald B. Cantor Roof Garden of The Met, 1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10028.