Purveyors of the best in often under-shown contemporary art for over a century, I trust the Whitechapel Gallery to turn me on to things the way I trust my own mother to love me (most days). So with notebook in hand and coffee in my bloodstream, I preformed my proverbial trust fall into the hands of their latest show, an extensive exhibition on photographer, film-maker and installation artist Zarina Bhimji, whose haunting works told the story of a place I’d never been and a life I’d never lived but which, to my bewilderment, I left feeling acutely connected to.
Though no stranger to accolades during her substantial career (she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007 and received a special commission to photograph the V&A permanent collection using one of only two ulta-rare Polaroid cameras), this is the first major survey of her work to be held in the U.K. Zarina was born in Mbarara, Uganda in 1963. In 1974 her family, along with 80,000 others of Asian decent, were forcibly expelled under the oppressive racial policies of Idi Amin’s regime.
She moved it Britain and eventually completed two fine arts degrees, the first at Goldsmiths followed by an MA at the Slade. For over two decades she has used her art a means to examine experience, both her own and those of others, and always with a palpable sense of history, memory, and decline.
The show opens in grand form, with large-scale photographs enriching the stark white walls of Gallery 1. For her most recent work the artist traveled to India, and the resultant images are an investigation into abandoned spaces. Immediately arresting both in scope and subject matter, her photographs depict scenes of dereliction in what is now recognizable Bhimji style; absent, bleak, haunting, beautiful.
Where Zarina excels is in here ability to capture moments of poetic incongruity; a disused filing cabinet with police documents labeled “homicides” housed next to paperwork noted “school funding”. She’s also created a film, Yellow Patch (2011), a stark glimpse into crumbling Indian provinces long past their glorious prime.
What is immediately noticeable about her films and photographs is that they are altogether lacking in actual people. The absence of figures is an active choice by the artist – one which on first thought seemed bizarre, considering her emphasis on human history and circumstance. And then, on second thought, I came to realize the significance of Zarina’s withholding – such objects stand alone as evidence of what once was.
In a setting devoid of human presence, the objects left behind hold a suggestive power made more affecting by their owner’s absence. It’s a cold truth that our accoutrements will, in all likelihood, outlive us. Zarina brings this reality to the forefront with subtlety, a whispered suggestion in the quiet gallery air. Scrawled on the wall I read her words: “My work is not about actual facts but about the echo they create.”
The upstairs rooms features a retrospective of older works, including her debut film Out of the Blue (2002). Equal parts eerie and bewitching, the film hinges upon an interplay of the visual (lingering shots of abandoned Ugandan factories) and the audible (ominous soundscapes which recreate a ghost-like human human presence).
Also included is the installation She Loves to Breathe – Pure Silence (1987), which addresses the 1970’s practice of subjecting Indian women to virginity tests (upon immigration to the U.K) with a sensitivity that makes you shudder.
Blood-stained surgical gloves, embroidered handkerchiefs and grainy photographs hang above little mountains of turmeric and chilli scattered Jackson-Pollack style across the floor. The piece smells of sweet spices, and makes you want to cry.
Not having encountered her work on such a large scale before, I’ve come away with the feeling that Zarina is an artists in the purest sense of the word – an individual who sees beauty in all places, who makes timeless images from unassuming moments.
Across the breadth of her projects she has never sacrificed aesthetics for the sake of telling a difficult story. She is quick to note that, while her work is essentially documentary, she makes the greatest of efforts to treat her subjects with a painterly eye, composing shots like still lives with “colour as primary concern”.
Perhaps it’s her most brilliant and bravest statement – to acknowledge the superficial power of aesthetics to override circumstances.
Sometimes a scene of destruction becomes a happenstance tableau; the poignant placements of an abandoned pair of shoes, or the inherent prettiness of a pile of withering paper. Artists can often struggle to represent great suffering in a way which feels meaningful or profound.With this latest, Ms. Bhimji has achieved work which is impactful without being forceful. Perhaps that’s because it just looks so darn good.