Zarina Bhimji’s composition I Will Always Be Here. Courtesy: © ZarinaBhimji. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020. Photo: Shanavas Jamaluddin, Sharjah Art Foundation.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
The solo exhibition ‘Zarina Bhimji: Black Pocket’ (Oct. 2, 2020 – Apr. 10), presented by Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF), has ended its run. Those who could not see it can perhaps live the experience through this piece just as those who did so, can re-live the event. For over 30 years, Bhimji’s work has staged enquiry into image, object, sound and language, searching for the universal, in both its literal and abstract manifestations. ‘Black Pocket,’ which was curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, offered the most in-depth survey of the artist’s work to date, featuring a number of her seminal works across film, photography and installation. It was the artist’s first solo exhibition in the region.
The exhibition examined Bhimji’s early exploration of forms of knowledge, overlooked by established systems of order, as well as her later exploration of architecture and landscape, as arbiters of complex experience and emotion. Each project, embarked upon after meticulous research and recce trips spanning weeks at a time, sees Bhimji sympathetically inhabit sites via her practice; every location becomes an open-air studio, cleared of political or historic specificity. Unfolding across three galleries in the Foundation’s Aga Khan Award-nominated Al Mureijah Art Spaces, the show resonated with the diverse historical and geographic connections of communities in Sharjah and the restored and repurposed heritage buildings, where it was located.
“Zarina Bhimji’s work encourages viewers to think beyond mainstream historical narratives, fusing autobiography, history and collective memory together,” said Al Qasimi.
“In combining her personal narrative with historical archives and post-colonial testimony, she creates a reflection on place and belonging. As the first major survey devoted to the artist’s work in the region, Black Pocket is a wonderful opportunity for audiences to experience her rich practice.”
Whether in immersive single-screen films or installations, Bhimji’s work spatialises attitudes, gestures and movements. Allowing sentiment to stand on its own merit, her work confronts our reliance on written narrative, instead using light, shadow, colour and texture, to recall the significance of intuition and cultural inheritance.
In slow pans across lush forested landscape, lingering shots of emptied architecture, or stamps and seals on official documents, her compositions of image and object come together to create a cacophony of sound and motion, that shape and reshape our understanding of the present moment with immediacy.
The major SAF commission Lead White (2018), part of the Foundation’s collection, was also on view. Evoking painterly concerns, the work’s title references the only pigment used to make white paint until the 19th century. A meditation on power, legality and beauty and ten years in the making, the work is an installation of photographs and textiles that explore the vast reaches of power. It conveys the colonial enterprise through qualities of colour and light, extending the customary use of white as an accent to imbue compositions with a sense of shape and dimension.
An exercise in tactility — ‘touching’ documents with the camera, nudging a particular colour with the eye or grasping textures in dialogue — develops from the artist’s investigation into the physical manifestations of vulnerability. Letters, envelopes, seals, words, lines, stamps, embossing and other official records sourced in national archives across multiple continents, are surveyed for impressions and images that offer insight into Britain and Europe as the cultures that produced them. Lead White is a meditation on power and beauty and Bhimji creates poetic narratives by editing and repeating these details, as if constructing a musical composition, to explore what archives do, how they categorise and how they reveal institutional ideologies.
The work also combines digital and physical crafts — including the use of embroidery for the first time in the artist’s practice — drawing attention to textures and traces, light and shadow. From some 5,000 digital images, Bhimji selected just over a 100 — adjusting for scale, colour, tone and composition — to draw attention to the ways in which gesture and traces of institutional ideology compound and unravel themselves in documents. Lead White is envisioned as a visual score, a crescendo of image and motion that builds through the repetition of words and languages of force.
In conclusion, through the diverse mediums of photography, film and installation, Bhimji’s practice engages with questions of institutional power and vulnerability, universality and intimacy. In 2007, Bhimji was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for photographs of Uganda. Their theme was the expulsion of Asians from the country and the subsequent loss and grief caused. The Tate gallery describes her work: “Bhimji’s photographs capture human traces in landscape and architecture. Walls are a recurring motif, attracting her through their absorption of history as they become a record of those who built, lived within and ultimately abandoned them.
“Despite a conspicuous absence of the body, the photographs emit a human presence … Bhimji captures her sites with relentless formal concerns intended to convey qualities of universal human emotion and existence – grief, longing, love and hope. Concrete places become abstract sentiments as the physical rhythms of landscape and architecture become psychological.” Born in 1963 in Mbarara, Uganda, Bhimji lives and works in London. Also on view were Vantage Point Sharjah 8 and Homebound: A Journey in Photography, which present a wide range of compelling contemporary image-making practices. Tarek Atoui: Cycles in 11 challenges established ways of listening through innovative approaches to sound, while Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent: Nowhere Less Now3 (flying saucer) marked the reopening of the iconic Flying Saucer, with a site-specific multimedia installation.
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