Zarina Bhimji Uncovers the Hangovers of Oppression in Ordinary Things

The Sharjah Art Foundation presents ‘Black Pocket’ a survey of the artist’s work exploring memory and inherited trauma at the hands of imperialism

BY Melissa Gronlund in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 09 FEB 21

Zarina Bhimji’s retrospective, ‘Black Pocket’, at Sharjah Art Foundation opened last autumn to a city quieted by COVID-19. A bevy of stray cats had taken over the passageways between the foundation’s dusty white galleries; even the traffic snarls had eased up. It was a fitting setting for a show by an artist who questions where memory is located and posits that spaces – devoid of people – still bear the traces of earlier institutions.

Bhimji was born in Mbarara, Uganda, in 1963 to parents of Indian descent – part of a sizable Asian population who were recruited to work on projects including the Uganda Railway in the 1890s. In 1972, Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of South Asians from the country. Although those with proof of Ugandan citizenship were exempt, many did eventually leave, including Bhimji’s family, who stayed for two years before settling in the UK. This geopolitical triangle and history of displacement informs much of Bhimji’s practice, which peers out onto the stepped hangovers of each generation’s lost home.

Zarina Bhimji, I Will Always Be Here, 1992
 Zarina Bhimji, I Will Always be Here, 1992, installation view, 85 glass shoe boxes containing fabric, chilies; cut hair; round chilies; pubic hair; copper utensils; coloured spices; 3 black-and-white photographs; saffron; chiffon fabric; hair; swords; green, yellow, blue, orange marbles; wisdom teeth; orange and yellow balloons; more hair; clay pot; shrivelled carrots; hair bun; coconut; embroidery; burnt sari; knife; broken red glass bangles; fabric with red border; text; roses and tissue paper dresses; overall dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist nad Sharjah Art Foundation. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020; photogeraphy: Shanavas Jamaluddin, Sharjah Art Foundation

Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, ‘Black Pocket’ emphasizes the intimacy to trauma invoked in Bhimji’s work, whether in her installations of artefacts held in glass shoeboxes, such as I Will Always Be Here (1992) – which allegorizes the compartmentalization of distressing memories – or in the strung-up images of gloves, shoes and birds in She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence (1987) that respond to the virginity tests South Asian women were forced to take upon their arrival to the UK in the 1970s. While these early works sketch out Bhimji’s fluency across media, it is her moving pictures that form the core of the show: Out of Blue (2002), her first film, presents Uganda as a depopulated site of greenery and decrepit colonial-era buildings; Yellow Patch (2011) centres on the Port of Mandvi in Kutch, from where many Gujaratis departed for Africa; and the extraordinary Jangbar (2015) looks at the layered histories of Africa and the Indian Ocean. (‘Jangbar’ is Gujarati for the island of Zanzibar, a former maritime kingdom.)

Zarina Bhimji, Jangbar, 2015
Zarina Bhimji, Jangbar, 2015, installation view, single screen installation; 35mm colour film, HD transfer with Dolby 5.1 surround sound; 26 min 37 sec. Courtesy: the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020; photography: Shanavas Jamaluddin, Sharjah Art Foundation

The films reveal the physical residue of colonialism. In Yellow Patch, British colonialist bureaucracy lives on in reams of rotting, mouldy paper – still organized on alphabetical shelves –or a disfigured statue of Queen Victoria, whose nose and mouth have eroded away. In Jangbar, railway-station signs for ‘1st, 2nd and 3rd class bookings’ point to the racial and class hierarchies of the era, while a voice-over in a church of crumbling white walls intones its ideology (‘loyalty to the British crown’) and the monetization of human beings. Figures appear as ghosts in Bhimji’s work, conjured in the sounds of a woman sobbing or of whispers in the trees. The UK is likewise present only as a phantasm, glimpsed through the unsuitability of British domestic customs in tropical countries: rusty springs protruding from a sofa, dangling electrical wires, the ubiquitous presence of ceiling fans.

Zarina Bhimji, She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence, 1987
Zarina Bhimji, She Loved to Breathe - Pure Silence (detail),1987, installation view, eight hand-coloured gelatin silver prints, text; printed on muslin sandwiched between the photographs; latex gloves; plexi-glass; photocopied passports on the muslin; turmeric and chilli powder scattered on the floor; overall dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation. Collection of Victoria and Albert Museum, London. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020; photography: Shanavas Jamaluddin, Sharjah Art Foundation

Bhimji was part of the Black British Arts Movement of the 1980s, bringing her affect-driven works to a discourse that initially focused on critiquing racial and gender relations in the UK. Looking at her work now – in a moment where international solidarity movements are receiving increased attention by scholars and curators – it is Bhimji’s perceptive treatment of colonialism’s continued legacy that comes to the fore, showing how it continues to be grotesquely present and yet still heedless of its influence. In this way, her work critiques the reductive idea that South–South networks somehow involve an absenting of the West. Instead, Bhimji mournfully shows that colonial powers are still present within the Global South – in society, business, education – and draw on old hierarchies.

Zarina Bhimji's 'Black Pocket' at the Sharjah Art Foundation is on view through 10 April 2021.

Main image: Zarina Bhimji, Lead White, 2018, installation view, 111 C-print photographs (Colour Chromogrenic mounted on paper, magnets), 2 embroidery works, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Sharjah Art Foundation. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020; photography: Shanavas Jamaluddin, Sharjah Art Foundation

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.