ZARINA BHIMJI, Yellow Patch, 2011, two stills from single-channel video, 33 min. Courtesy the artist and Design and Artists Copyright Society, London.

Zarina Bhimji

Whitechapel Gallery
Also available in:  Arabic
There is a recurring theme within the literature discussing Zarina Bhimji’s art, including her own writings: that the documentary approach is eschewed and each subject is accessed instead through echoes, allusion and aesthetics. This, however, is a method adopted by numerous artists examining society today. More interesting is the unusually protracted research behind Bhimji’s work and the success of their results. The artist’s exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery allowed a welcome opportunity to assess the evolution of technique over her 27-year career, while also providing a rare view of her artistic process.

Her early installations reveal an immense promise, with incisive commentaries on colonialism and its pervasive reverberations. The immaculately presented Cleaning the Garden (1998) weaves together the 18th-century gardens of Harewood House in Leeds, United Kingdom, and their 14th-century counterparts at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, connected through their mutual history of slave labor. Featured alongside sparse, alluring photographs and light boxes that explore the two locations are four mirrors, each of which is engraved with a horizontal line of text. In polite tones they advertise the sale of slaves, or announce rewards for capturing those that ran away, creating disturbing interruptions in viewers’ minds as they contemplate their own reflection in the glass.

Bhimji’s first major film, Out of Blue (2002), confronts the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972, which led to the departure of her own family to Britain two years later. The work features slow, emotive panning shots of stained prisons, fetid barracks and empty graveyards surrendering to encroaching vegetation and decay. The rich sound track weaves Sufi singer Abida Parveen’s affecting vocals with the menacing whine of mosquitoes and contemporary radio proclamations. Bhimji claims that her works are structured not by history or personal experience but by aesthetics—yet this is hard to accept in the particular instance of Out of Blue. Its strong narrative pull resonates with the experience of Ugandan Asians: from the initial evocation of foreboding, as fires spread through the lush countryside, to the final shots of a plane leaving the battered, bullet-ridden shell of the old Entebbe airport, a gut-wrenching departure point for so many in 1972.

The exhibition culminated with Yellow Patch (2011), a 33-minute film investigating locations in India that were loosely connected to Bhimji’s father’s life before his emigration to Uganda in the early 20th century. The contrast with Out of Blue is revealing. Many of the same tropes are used—human absence, cracked walls, spiderwebs and Parveen’s vocals—yet the application and fusion are more finely judged in Yellow Patch. The camera moves in a more languorous fashion, settling on particular objects, such as a pile of string alongside crumbling documents, or the frayed fabric of a furniture carcass disturbed by a breeze. The exploration of light and the collage of sound, including typewriters and birdsong, are allusive rather than didactic—posing ambiguous questions around loss and the passage of time. The resulting immersive experience achieves a wider emotional language than the more palpable designs of Out of Blue.

Sometimes the artifice of the works intrudes on the viewing experience. The rigorous absence of people in dockside locations brings to mind film crews hushing people away, instead of genuine desolation. The somewhat contrived naming of the photographs in the “Love” series (1998–2006), taken during preparatory work for her films, is also unfortunate. The skewed shots—often of filthy walls or long-abandoned fittings in dusty rooms—achieve monumentality, speaking of previous lives, of use and abuse, without recourse to the over-eager explanations proffered by such titles as Memories Were Trapped Inside the Asphalt (2003).

Yet Bhimji’s achievement is undeniable, making her one of the most sensitive interpreters of postcolonial landscapes. Her recent work on malaria, the potent photographic series “Red and Wet” (2000–11), indicates the depth of her ongoing commitment to the wider African experience. Her next film, which will continue the ancestral journey into East Africa begun in Yellow Patch, is much anticipated.