History in Context

The first major survey of three decades of Zarina Bhimji’s highly emotive work and the premiere of her new film, Yellow Patch, opens at Whitechapel Gallery, London, in January.

There are unseen lines that cross the earth, lines that make little concession to land or water but are owed and owing to both, through industry and habitation. Changes to these naturally accrue over time, and it is triangulations of these lines, wrought between the subcontinent and Britain that meet vicariously in the films, installations, drawings, material accumulations and photographic works of Zarina Bhimji. These are showing in their most extensive and expanded form in a retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery that marks 30 years of significant artistic production.

Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2007, it was only in 2002 that Bhimji had her first foray into a medium with which she is now firmly associated, as well as highly acclaimed. The piece was Out of Blue (2002) shot in colour on 16mm film stock. Running at 24 minutes and 25 seconds it was commissioned and produced for dOCUMENTA 11 (2002), where it was one of a series of film works that addressed population dispersions through varying contexts of modern diaspora. Amongst these works were Ulrike Ottinger’s Southeast Passage (2002), a reversal of Eastern European migration routes, Chantal Akerman’s From The Other Side (2002), following the border crossings of illegal Mexican immigrants to America, and Isaac Julien’s Paradise Omeros (2002), an unpacking of Afro-Caribbean identity following trans-Atlantic migration.

Out of Blue (which is presented at the Whitechapel) is a defining work for Bhimji; not simply because it is her first work in film and connects to the subject to her own personal history, but also because it presents an affecting visual language of differences between images through its adoption of structural methodologies of image and sound. Bhimji was born in Uganda to Indian parents. In 1974, when she was aged 10, her family – her parents, herself and her sister – left abruptly, forced from their country and their home by political circumstance. Their departure was the result of events that occurred two years earlier in 1972 when Idi Amin assumed military control of Uganda via a coup within a country besieged by civil war. Almost immediately after taking power Amin declared that British Asians were no longer Ugandan citizens and had 90 days to leave the country. Three days later this was revised to all Asians. A population that had largely settled in Uganda through British colonial requirements for skilled labour in Eastern African countries had been displaced and had lost nationality. Like many others Bhimji’s family travelled to England. And it was not until she began the preparatory work for Out of Blue that she returned to her country of birth.

While other works such as She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence (1987) (showing at Whitechapel) date further back in time it is Out of Blue that acts as a direct counterpart to the newest work in the exhibition Yellow Patch (2011). The first part of a two-part work, it is being shown for the first time at Whitechapel (as well as being shown simultaneously at The New Art Gallery Walsall). Consistent to Bhimji’s evocative, textural and emotionally charged cinematic language, Yellow Patch is a lyrical exposure of architectures, territories, hinterlands, refuges and palaces that touch on or mark the lines of journeys foregrounding the migration and interfacing of peoples, cultures, lands and languages caught by the milieu of the British colonial subcontinent of the late 19th and early 20th century. “It is largely a forgotten history, yet one that continues to affect thousands of people,” explains Whitechapel curator Achim Borchardt-Hume, commenting on the divisive tensions that British colonial rule created and the often brutal actions that marked their closures. Yellow Patch discloses a precedent history to that of Out of Blue, a step back in time that examines the situation before the event (of 1972) and the stark and brutal displacement that Bhimji experienced at first hand. People are absent from Yellow Patch, as is narration – the sound is rich and layered – and, as with Out of Blue, it is the traces and residual markings owed to people through places, through the monuments and outputs by which they choose to describe themselves, that Bhimji turns to as her referent and guide for her camera lens. While minds betray memories, there are tacit forensic truths that remain. Witnessed, these outstrip the distortions of memories. Such truths and differences of truth are what Bhimji seeks, and they are the images she presents us with and, by so doing, draws our attention to. To this end Bhimji does not seek to extract factual narrative through conventional storytelling, but moreover to expose it to the framework of storytelling. And it is precisely such exposures that provide Bhimji’s works with contexts and readings that surpass the specificity of their starting points. As such her works do not seek to tighten, but instead to loosen, the bond between an image and its referent. Or as Achim Borchardt-Hume explains: “As films evolve in time, they inevitably convey a narrative. What is important in Bhimji’s case is that although this narrative develops against the backdrop of the historic triangle of India, Africa and Britain it does not seek to convey one fixed story but to make room for multiple narratives.” This further proposes that “meaning does not exhaust itself in the depiction of the story.” Here it becomes clear that the voice that resonates within and across the works is not a voice of return or backward glance but instead a voice attuned and attentive to its own present, to the moment of its making, contingent to the echoes, traces and scars that make and mark it.

Bhimji’s works stretch through film to photography and beyond. Many of these are presented as installations, with works occasionally connected by diverse forms of material. She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence combines photographs with a floor of chilli powder and turmeric, while elsewhere rarely seen photographs and research drawings for films are shown for the first time. “It felt important to give an overview of Bhimji’s work and how it has developed,” explains Achim Borchardt-Hume, “despite the critical acclaim that the work has garnered over the years, and the fact that it is now in the collections of major museums, much of it has not been shown in London for some time, with some earlier works seen even more rarely.”

Intrinsic to Bhimji’s works are the histories that motivate them or in many cases serve as direct catalysts, whether through photography, film or other constructed media. The echoes and traces that forge the roots of such works raise complex questions of representation, of what the terms are for this when their underpinning narratives are deep-rooted and sensitively charged.

To this end Bhimji’s works are perhaps indebted to things that are at some level beyond or outside of representation, either through the trauma of actual events or a displacement of time that renders the factual inert. The intensive landscapes that recur through Bhimji’s films simply support, as the writer and broadcaster and fellow Ugandan Asian Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues, the “conventional” viewpoint held by Ugandan Asians of an “imploded paradise” But it is here that the visual language adopted by Bhimji also draws on the romanticised languages of Western visual arts and literature; of ruins and poetic prose, more so than other popularised or altogether alternative forms. Borchardt-Hume says about Out of Blue: “Perhaps the most surprising thing is the beauty of the landscape, which seems more indebted to the traditions of European landscape painting than falling into the trap of stereotypical depictions of Africa.” By locating the visual image language within such a frame Bhimji not only addresses her (Western) audience directly, but also makes transparent the structural limitations of her project, encoding the emptiness of the works as time-based separations mediated by indexical traces that document, but only from the point of the moment at which they are made.

In questioning what can be represented in his book The Future of the Image (2003), the French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, turns to ideas of the unrepresentable and draws on literary examples, taking as his starting point Robert Antelme’s book, The Human Race (1947), and its prose description of living conditions in Nazi concentration camps. He notes that the style of Antelme’s writing documents the circumstance to great affect, using short, factually descriptive sentences with no embellishment. Rancière writes that it is “the experience of a life reduced to its most basic aspects, stripped of any horizon of expectations, and merely connecting simple actions and perceptions one after the other.” He goes on to write that while the language structure is entirely true to the circumstance of Antelme’s experience, it is also the language structure of Albert Camus’ book The Outsider (1942) and moreover that the same language structure appears in passages written by Gustave Flaubert that date to the mid 19th century. What Rancière argues from this is that the “language that conveys this (Antelme’s experience) is in no way specific to it.”

In a related way it could be argued that the visual language of slow panning and exquisitely composed images is a stylistic convention that while entirely true to Bhimji’s experience is likewise not specific to it. One need only to look to works by artists such as Philippe Parreno, Jane and Louise Wilson, and Darren Almond and works such as In the Between (Landscape) (2006) by Darren Almond, Gamma (1999) by Jane and Louise Wilson, and June 8 1969 (2009) by Philippe Parreno to see this. What this discloses is the level to which this stylistic language of image and audio speaks both of the complex “unrepresentable” aspects of narrative that underpin Bhimji’s works, and at the same time does not cast limitation to further expanded readings of those images. This double aspect of image is noted by Achim Borchardt-Hume when he writes of Yellow Patch: “While the film evolves against a particular background its meaning does not exhaust itself in the depiction of this story.”

It is interesting that, in describing the language structure that connects these writers, Rancière identifies it as “reduced to its most basic elements.” Even simply as words these can be used without alteration to describe the forms of the images that Bhimji presents within her films. This slowing of image draws reference to the structural filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s and works such as Michael Snow’s seminal Wavelength (1966-1967) that epitomise this restraint and ethic. The film is a single shot of an empty warehouse, animated solely by the continuous alteration of the zoom lens which takes 45 minutes and gives the film its duration. Light describes and re-describes the room while a sine wave provides the audio track moving from its lowest to its highest point. Michael Snow wrote of the work that he was trying “to make a definitive statement of pure film space and time, a balancing of ‘illusion’ and ‘fact’, all about seeing.” It is a related truth of seeing, a language of incremental difference, which emerges through the works of Bhimji. And it was the early films of Henri Chomette, Cinq Minutes du Cinema Pur (1925-26) and Jeux de reflets et de vitesse (1923-25), that first drew film from away representational narrative in order to reach purer outcomes outside of drama and documentary.

A final aspect of slowness intrinsic to Bhimji’s works is the actual time of physical change within the landscapes and spaces that she has filmed. This slow pacing has allowed Bhimji to engage with her subjects in the present – a present filled with trace marks – without having to necessarily turn to documented or other formats. This slowness of change has preserved not just the open landscapes that Bhimji has filmed but also many of the structures and architectures that occupy them, despite the fact that they may be in demise or disrepair. The clarity of mapping is perhaps best articulated by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who, writing in 2003 when Out of Blue was shown at Tate, noted: “The landscape is still fresh for those driven from it. As the camera strokes its way softly across the beauty, three decades of distance vanish.” Bhimji’s practice is one of stripping back content and with it representation, until only the faintest of lines are visible; lines that cross the earth and each other.

Zarina Bhimji opened at Whitechapel Gallery on 19 January and continued until 9 March 2012. www.whitechapelgallery.org

Charles Danby