Zarina Bhimji – Whitechapel Gallery

Posted on February 12, 2012


On Saturday I visited the Whitechapel Gallery to see the survey exhibition of Zarinal Bhimji’s work. To be honest before this exhibition I was not familiar with her work. I went along with an open mind and was intrigued with the idea of seeing a mixed media presentation of work, with installations, photographs and film.

The work presented centred on her associations with India and East Africa. Bhimji spent her early childhood in Uganda. At the age of 11 she and her family had to leave the country following Idi Amin’s demands that all asians leave the country within three months. Through her art she has been trying to make sense of her family history.

Her two films Out of the Blue and Yellow Patch  were the centrepieces of the exhibition. However we began by viewing the photographs. The photographs are in colour – shot on 35mm film. The colour is rich and the quality of the light wonderful. Long shadows and golden hues predominate, suggesting that they were taken during the ‘golden hour’. The prints are very large and as a result they are a little soft. The images are elusive and evocative. The informational content is on the face of it quite limited. For example what is one to make of a piles of old papers bound into bundles. However their expressive qualities are haunting. The ‘paper bundles’ photograph is about the memories bound up in those papers.

Her subject is the migration of Indians in the first instance from the subcontinent to East Africa and more recently the exodus from Uganda.I see her work as documentary but in a form which is beyond just the informational…her work operates on an emotionally expressive level leaving itself open to individual interpretations. Her approach recognises that traumatic events often resist expression in words.

In a documentary sense my response was guided by my  prior knowledge of her subject. This lead me to contemplate the people who had occupied the now empty spaces and landscapes she depicts. Who were they? Did they survive? Are they still alive? Where are they and their families living now? Did they suffer? etc etc But this was my interpretation. For others from the OCA group it stirred more personal memories and connections.

The films are even more expressive using both visual images on a large screen and sound. It is amazing how the combination of the visual and aural messages heightened my emotional response. I felt like I was actually there, looking around the empty, derilict spaces and experiencing  a hot steamy climate, the smells, the insects etc. Somehow the absence of people and voices accentuated this feeling. Loneliness and loss were the emotions that they stirred in me.

This quote from Zarina Bhimji (Whitechapel Gallery, pp19) gives a great insight into how she develops her films/photography. The particular quote relates to Out of the Blue:  …originally the research started with wanting to understand the basic history of what happened in Uganda, but then I wanted to understand what the word ‘asylum’ means, or what the work ‘stateless’, from a political and personal perspective. From that, I put an idea together about how I could communicate this feeling. An how I could enlarge it through sound and create a rhythm out of it.”  This sounds simple but in fact it is very difficult.

I really enjoyed the exhibition and gained a lot from it. The importance of having a subject which one is passionate about and about which one has something to say is a central learning point. As is reinforcing my conviction that different viewers inevitably respond to art in their own way. It demonstrated emphatically how images can evoke strong feelings and how the artist/photographer can harness this to convey their intentions. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, it showed me that documentary photography can go way beyond simple informational content. Emotions which resist literal expression can also be conveyed by the artist/photographer.


Whitechapel Gallery (2012) Zarina Bhimji London: Ridinghouse