Exhibition review: Zarina Bhimji, Whitechapel Gallery, London

From hazy horizons in Zanzibar to bullet-encrusted buildings in Uganda, Zarina Bhimji’s images have a unique kind of beauty. The impact of imperialism, migration and violence seethe beneath the surface of her photographs and films, yet her aesthetic eye always shines through. In Bhimji’s work, we see beauty in the wake of political brutality; the power of the present refracted through the relics of the past.

Often alluding to the violence of Idi Amin’s despotic regime in Uganda – of which the artist and her family were victims – Whitechapel Gallery’s latest exhibition contemplates the “echoes” of facts and political events. Simply titled Zarina Bhimji, the show spans 25 years of a practice embedded in historical and empirical research. However, as art historian T.J. Demos explains, Bhimji’s work is often about ‘the blockage of information, as much as it results from the collection of historical research’.

Still from Yellow Patch, 35mm film, Zarina Bhimji, 2011

Walking around the gallery, we see close-ups of architectural surfaces and cobwebbed buildings. We see unpeopled landscapes, material entropy, scenes of abandonment. The political significance of the sites and surfaces on display is absent from the works themselves. Through text panels, we discover that an abandoned airport in a series of images is actually Entebbe Airport, a site reminiscent of Amin’s 1972 decree to expel 80,000 Ugandans of Asian descent.

In the exhibition catalogue, we learn about the places portrayed in Yellow Patch, an immersive 35mm film. The once grand houses and Victorian offices in Gujarat and the Port Trust of Bombay. Elegiac scenes of the desert landscape of the Rann of Kutch. Glimpses of the Indian Ocean near the port of Mandvi.

Yellow Patch takes the history of trade and migration between India and Africa as a point of departure. There are abandoned offices littered with bureaucratic documents. Lifeless interiors covered in peeling wallpaper and decayed furniture. There’s a crumbling statue of Queen Victoria.

The material remnants of a colonial past are punctuated by a panoply of sounds – birdsong, footsteps, rain, violins, fragments of political speeches. Visually absorbing and even relaxing to watch, Yellow Patch is a mesmerising film. Despite the ghostly presence of past cruelties, it has a painterly refinement.

Still from Yellow Patch, 35mm film, Zarina Bhimji, 2011

In the film’s final scene, we see wild dogs roam slate-coloured sands amid the skeletons of dhows (wooden boats). Unlike the disused buildings and forgotten documents portrayed earlier in the film, these colossal vessels appear to be under construction. They creak loudly on the windswept beach, adding a sense of movement and progress to the film.

Sharing the fate of thousands of Ugandans, Bhimji is a displaced citizen, a child refugee expelled from her country by Amin’s regime. This colours her work and bleeds through the walls of the gallery. But rather than tones of fury, a sense of oxymoronic beauty permeates this captivating exhibition. In the artist words, her work ‘is not about the actual facts, but the echo they create, the gestures and the sound’.

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Still from Yellow Patch, 35mm film, Zarina Bhimji, 2011

Bhimji explores the buildings and structures of power that have shaped her sense of self. However, rather than meeting these subjects with anger, she re-visits them with curiosity and tenderness (one of the photographic series in the show is called Love).

At heart, the exhibition reveals the artist’s fascination with material processes. Buildings decaying, landscapes unfolding, objects moving in the wind. The violence of colonialism is there, in the bullet holes and the war-torn landscapes, but it never eclipses the beauty on display.

A life force runs through the veins of this exhibition, lights it up from within. Despite the brutal history she confronts, Bhimji’s perspective is strangely uplifting, reminding me of a quote from Henry David Thoreau: ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see’.

Exhibition: Zarina Bhimji
Artist: Zarina Bhimji
Details: Whitechapel Gallery, London, 19 January–9 March 2012
First published: Aesthetica magazine blog, January 2012. View the published article on Aesthetica here