Sunday, 12 February 2012

Zarina Bhimji at Whitechapel Gallery

Your Sadness is Drunk, 2001-06, Ilfochrome Ciba classic print

Zarina Bhimji’s photographs and films are mostly empty of people, yet their presence nonetheless fills every frame…

Bhimji, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007, is currently showing a retrospective of 25 years of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery. The show is a thoughtful, reflective exploration of themes such as trade, colonialism, and migration across continents including Africa, India and Europe.

At first glance many of Bhimji’s still photographs, which are displayed on lightboxes and as large format images in the space, feel like they could be elegant travel shots, documenting someone’s global tour. Look closely though and unsettling elements emerge: a wall scattered with bullet holes, a sense of general decay and disrepair. The images capture buildings and objects that feel long abandoned, left to slowly crumble.

Yellow Patch, 2011, 25mm colour film and transfer to DVD

Yellow Patch, 2011, 25mm colour film and transfer to DVD

Yellow Patch
(2011), a new film shown here for the first time, is inspired by the migration and trade routes across the Indian Ocean between India and Africa. Bhimji eschews traditional documentary techniques in the work, choosing instead to present ambiguous, slow-moving scenes and allowing her audience to create the narrative. Instead of presenting definitive images that sum up the perceived history of a place, Bhimji's work is deliberately indeterminate.

Beautiful shots of abandoned palaces appear alongside dusty colonial offices in Mumbai, filled with stacks of long-ignored paperwork. Bureaucracy is evident everywhere yet people themselves are almost entirely absent, apart from on the soundtrack accompanying the film, where voices mingle with the rich noise of everyday life. The sounds offer a contrast to the dilapidated buildings, where only birds and stray dogs now roam. One section of the film lingers slowly over a damaged yet still grandiose sculpture of Queen Victoria, which offers a stark reminder of the legacies of colonialism that remain in the country, but otherwise the buildings' stories remain silent, left to the viewer to piece together.

Breathless Love, 2007, Ilfrochrome Ciba classic print

A second, older film, shown in the upstairs space, presents a more personal story for Bhimji. Out of Blue (2002) is shot in Uganda, the country from which Bhimji, alongside 80,000 other Asians, was forced to leave by Idi Amin in 1972, when she was a child. Though in interviews Bhimji is quick to state the work is not about her own history, it is difficult to entirely ignore the connection. The film is not explicitly politicial, though among its various scenes are lingering shots of the rundown Enteppe Airport, where the final scenes of the forced expulsion took place. As in Yellow Patch, Bhimji's film, which can be viewed on her website here, offers a quiet, entirely unsentimental, yet hugely compelling portrait of the country without making any overt statements about the traumatic events that took place there.

Writing about the work on her website, Bhimji says: “The project is about learning to listen to ‘difference’, the difference in shadows, microcosms and sensitivity to difference in its various forms. Listening with the eyes, listening to changes in tone, difference of colour. It attempts to link to similar disturbances that have taken place in Kosovo and Rwanda. The work is not a personal indulgence; it is about making sense through the medium of aesthetics.”

Bapa Closed His Heart, It Was Over, 2001-06, Ilfochrome Ciba classic print

Shadows and Disturbances, 2007, Ilfrochrome Ciba classic print. All images courtesy the artist and DACS, London

Bhimji’s work doesn’t just address the behaviour of politicians and officials overseas either: one of her earlier works here, an installation titled She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence (1987), explores the controversial immigration protocols in Britain during the 1970s, which subjected women from the Indian subcontinent to ‘virginity tests’ by immigration officers upon arrival.

Her work may touch on potentially explosive subjects, but Bhimji handles this content without theatrics or indeed any politicial stance, instead letting the buildings, landscapes and objects she captures form their own subtle portrait of the events. The resulting works may be beautiful but the ambiguous narratives they contain remain distressing and unsettling.

Zarina Bhimji is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until March 9. More info on the exhibition can be found at

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