History and Texture: Zarina Bhimji at Whitechapel Gallery / Reviewed by Daniel Campbell Blight / 21.02.12
Whitechapel Gallery presents a survey of Zarina Bhimji’s work spanning a career of twenty-five years. Born in Uganda in 1963 and expelled in 1972 along with the Asian minority from Idi Amin’s repugnant dictatorship, Bhimji’s family – like many other Indian families – moved to the UK. The artist later studied at both Goldsmiths and The Slade and has exhibited her work widely since the early 1990’s across London, Europe and the US and was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007.
If one were to describe a single, important element of corporeality to Bhimji’s work it would be texture: a number of political, social and cultural observations are made using the texture of things as a foregrounding device. Works such as Memories Were Trapped Inside the Asphalt (1998-2003), presented as an image in a backlit lightbox, have a manner of recounting historical fact through the photographing of the most banal objects or scenarios. This particular work depicts a grimy wall in what looks like the storeroom of a now-abandoned African administration building (my uncertainty of this seems apt to the experience of viewing this image; there is a subtle trickery to each and every picture, almost as if the artist seeks to play upon the presumptions of the onlooker). On the wall hangs two pairs of shoes and on the floor sit several plastic containers that look like they once contained cleaning products, petrol or grease. The entire scenario is layered with dirt, finger smears and a general sense of gorgeous grubbiness. The building was probably inhabited by Indian office employees, brought to Uganda as trained workers to administrate the running of businesses in the then-colonised African country.
In Bhimji’s works, elements of colonial history are present, but in typical post-documentary fashion they are hovering in the background: emphasis instead being placed on the form or manner in which the relationship between, in this case, colonialism and personal experience can be demonstrated through textural, almost incidental observations of space and place. Aesthetics take precedence over politics in these works, but not to the detriment of the subject matter, as there is something astutely considered in the way in which Bhimji’s work exists as a kind of weird heterodox: a form of expanded documentary practice that sets itself apart from traditional documentary standards, and seems to conjure an atmosphere somewhere between mere implication and frustrating suspension in the gallery space, in her favour. Bhimji’s work alludes to an idea of historical fact in a deliberately obscured manner; bringing her own aesthetic to the fore and, importantly, avoiding simplified or even dogmatic readings of historical references within the work.
A temporary cube has been constructed in the ground floor gallery in which one can sit in an acoustically dampened, blacked-out environment to watch a film. Yellow Patch (2011), a new film work by the artist strengthens the concentration on texture with an accompanying soundtrack. The camera begins by focusing on the Princess Dock in Bombay, identifying beautiful, decaying architectural detail with slow pans and soft focus views of interior spaces, unused offices and piles of dusty paperwork. The film moves on to new locations in India while voices appear and disappear throughout; perhaps these are the sounds of political speeches, as TJ Demos describes in his accompanying catalogue essay, one man can be heard saying he was ‘made by the British’ and another states ‘the soul of a nation, long suppressed…’ These fleeting elements of aural texturing support the visual detail of the moving image: the pace at which the film progresses, the pastel colourings naturally present in the buildings studied by Bhimji’s camera and the sweeping, reverberant audio are all beautifully tied together.
There is only as much history as one wants to see in this exhibition, it is at no point forced upon the viewer. Maybe this is what good political or historically referential art does well: its politics remain quietly present, its history exists in the background, flashing up from time to time, but never to overwhelm, only to be accessed or tapped into during moments of necessity. ‘For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’ Walter Benjamin states in section V of his Thesis on the Philosophy of History. Perhaps Zarina Bhimji recognises Benjamins’s description of history as the dogmatic tool of the ruling classes and recovers it here as a textural device with an altogether subtler ingenuity? We, the viewers of this exhibition are Benjamin’s “receivers” of history, and we are asked to recognise the importance of Bhimji’s refined artistic statement during a point of wider political struggle in the world today.
Whitechapel Gallery : 77 - 82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX
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