Portals, doorways, windows, cosmic passageways abound in the dozen paintings of The New Abnormal, Sabina Haque’s bright and eerie exhibition at Portland’s Waterstone Gallery of scenes of environmental disaster.
They are images not of Robert Frost’s apocalypse of fire and ice, but of fire and water — the ice, after all, is melting. And, like the “new abnormal” of environmental instability that they depict, they are strangely compelling in their brilliant swaths of color: alarming for the tales of destruction that they tell, and yet also hopeful, or at least ambivalent. Where do those portals lead? To a romanticized past? A different but still cataclysmic disaster? Or perhaps a vision of repair and hope on the other side? Do they offer simply a different view of a common global destruction, or the possibility of a planet ecologically rebalanced?
It’s no surprise that paintings like these come from a Portland painter: Artists of the Pacific Northwest, and the Western U.S. in general, have long taken aspects of the land and natural environments as subject matter, from traditional landscape paintings to, increasingly, paintings and other art about environmental degradation and the effects of climate change, from clear-cutting and natural disasters to the plight of wildlife.
Indeed, artists’ approaches to climate and environment can be infinitely varied. On the day I meet Haque for a walkthrough at Waterstone, fellow gallery artist Susan Harrington is pulling a shift at the artist-run gallery. She shows me one of her own paintings, a large and luscious land- and flower-scape of native and endangered plants that takes inspiration from the rich tradition of scientific artists’ botanical paintings from the 17th through the 19th centuries. “I’ve been pulling people’s attention to the fragility, and vulnerability of plants in the current environmental crisis we’re facing,” she notes.
It’s also no surprise that Haque, in particular, has taken on environmental issues — in her case, in a more stark yet still aesthetically rich way. Her work has long been intertwined with cultural issues and community engagement, from collaborations with BIPOC youth and immigrant communities to her remarkable film and installation project Remembrance from nine years ago, a work impelled by the effects of drone warfare and other violence on Pakistan, where she grew up. Where the world spins out of control, Haque seeks causes and conversations.
The paintings in The New Abnormal suggest the global scale of the climate crisis. “People forget that we’re all interconnected,” Haque comments during our walkthrough. “There’s an unpredictability to what’s going on.” She refers to the book Our Fragile Moment, by climatologist Michael Mann, and adds, “It is a fragile moment. And we’re all involved. One of the biggest challenges in regard to the climate is people’s apathy. How do we stay hopeful? We have to be prepared for the impossible. How do we prepare for that?”
Left: From a chair with no seat, a view through a window of possibility. Sabina Haque, “Abandoned View Point,” 2023, acrylic on wood, 36 x 36 inches. Right: In flooded Pakistan, fleeing climate refugees often tried to take their precious possesions with them. Sabina Haque, “Lost Belongings,” 2023, acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 36 inches. Photos: Kevin McConnell
Enter, if you will, those portals in the paintings that make up The New Abnormal. One of the things they do is connect environmental catastrophes on opposite sides of the world: Oregon’s devastating 2020 wildfires in and around Otis and at Beachie Creek and the town of Detroit, which destroyed communities and burned 200,000 acres of forestland; and Pakistan’s life-altering floods of 2022 that put a third of the nation underwater, killed more than 1,700 people, injured almost 13,000 more, destroyed almost 900,000 houses, and displaced or otherwise impacted 33 million people.
And the disaster isn’t over when it’s over. “There’s a huge number of climate refugees coming out of Pakistan,” Haque says, noting that the Indian Ocean is now the hottest in the world, the high-mountain icepacks are rapidly melting, and the heavily populated Pakistan is now one of the world’s 10 nations most at climate peril: “This is like a thousand Katrinas happening.”
Interspersed among the exhibit’s images of destruction are images of repair, such as the paired works Cocooned Safety and Sheltering in Cocooned Trees, which show giant cocoons built in trees to provide something akin to arks of safety for imperiled creatures. “Even insects find a way to survive,” Haque notes. In other paintings, such as Abandoned View Point, destruction and regeneration coexist: Amid the charred and skeletal trunks of a fire-eaten forest, a bloom of fresh wildflowers sprouts in a corner of the foreground.
Haque’s international background affords her a more expansive view of both the perils and possibilities of global linkages. Born in the United States to a Pakistani father and an American mother, and married to an Indian man from Mumbai, she moved to Karachi, Pakistan’s densely packed city of more than 20 million, when she was a year old and stayed there until she was 18 and returned to the U.S. for college. A Portlander since 2006 (she teaches art at Portland State University) she still spends time in Pakistan regularly. The New Abnormal, she says, is “a painting installation reflecting the climate crisis in the two places I call home: Oregon and Pakistan.”
Two sides of the same coin: “The New Abnormal” installation includes “Fire & Flood: A Climate Portal from Oregon to Pakistan,” a quartet of paired archival photographs in clear acrylic frames showing scenes of climate disasters from Oregon and Pakistan. The 8 x 10-inch photos, which Haque used as references for her paintings, are mounted back to back, so that the image from one side “bleeds” into the other. Photos: Kevin McConnell
“Raised in Pakistan,” Haque notes in her artist’s statement for the Waterstone show, “I have spent my adult life in the U.S. navigating the experience of living between cultures through creative expression and civic engagement. My life story informs my art, which presents imaginary dreamlike places as a way of exploring time and memory and to connect people in distant environments.”
Looking at the paintings in The New Abnormal I found myself thinking, a bit to my surprise, of the wardrobe that acts as a magical portalway to a lush and inviting, if still challenging and dangerous, alternate reality in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. Another portion of Haque’s artist’s statement suggests that that might not be entirely off the mark. “I layer paint and photographs to create alternative realities or portals that are metaphors for the interconnectedness of people and environments,” she writes. “Magical portals or windows transport us to a renewed, transformed place. I apply paint to memorialize scarred and abandoned sites. The paintings recast them, making them surreally beautiful. The images reorient the viewer’s connection to time which visually collapses past, present and potential future.”
Haque completed the paintings in The New Abnormal over a two-month period this year: “I’m a fast painter,” she says with a laugh. But the actual painting, she adds, is the tip of a melting iceberg — on a typical large project she spends about a year on research and planning before she begins to create. And in this case the clock was ticking: Pakistan’s 2022 flooding began in June and continued into October. Haque last visited the nation where she grew up last December, while the impact of the water’s destruction was still profoundly evident.
So she set to work — a work that takes her sometimes to places she’s seen, and sometimes to places she’s seen only in her waking dreams. “For me the window is a metaphor for another world,” she says as we walk through the exhibition. “In my paintings I’ve always worked through loss, memory, place.”
And how, exactly, can a dozen paintings created in a studio in Portland, Oregon, have an impact on an impending disaster of global scope? They pay attention, and suggest alternate realities.
“In the end,” Haque declares, “imagination is going to help us get out of this. I want people to see that window of opportunity.”
The New Abnormal
- What: An exhibition of a dozen paintings by Sabina Haque of environmental disasters in Pakistan and Oregon
- Where: Waterstone Gallery, 129 N.W. Ninth Ave., Portland
- When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29
- Artist’s Talk: Haque will give a free gallery talk about the show at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 22