[ARTS IN BRIEF] A major retrospective of Zarina Bhimji’s photography draws our eye to traces of occupancy, writes Rakesh Ramchurn
In architecture, often our focus is on the effect the built environment has on people. It is rare that we reverse the relationship and ask: what effect do people have on buildings? What indelible marks do they leave on the built environment? And when a building has been abandoned, what remains of the human presence that once inhabited it?
The Whitechapel Gallery is hosting the first major retrospective collection of Zarina Bhimji’s work which explores these ideas through photographs and installations of derelict buildings and depopulated landscapes, looking at how history and the human presence live on in abandoned urban structures.
The most evocative works come from Bhimji’s Love 1998-2007 collection; a series of large colour photographs of abandoned buildings taken in Uganda. Bhimji has spoken of ‘objects as evidence’, and this idea resurfaces throughout the collection; empty petrol containers; a sign above a door for the ‘Assistant Quartermaster’; a cardboard box labelled ‘Hypodermic Syringes’ and more familiar items such as shoes and furniture all give clues as to the life these buildings had before becoming derelict.
Bhimji’s film, Yellow Patch (35mm, 2011), being premiered simultaneously at the Whitechapel Gallery and at The New Art Gallery, Walsall, explores trade between India and Africa, and mixes still and panning shots of a variety of subjects, including derelict buildings, an abandoned shipyard and uninhabited landscapes.
The film is more poetic than it is documentary; footage is not edited so as to form a linear narrative – instead, scenes were chosen for the architectural details they provided or for the quality of light and colour available. The soundtrack was composed separately from the film itself – samples of radio broadcasts, factories, school children at play or singing have been spliced into the film, emphasising the sense of the human presence which has been lost.
Other works in the exhibition deal the effects of colonialism and post-colonialism. Cleaning the Garden (1998) is a collection of photographs taken in the landscaped garden at Harewood House, an 18th century stately home which was commissioned by the Lascelles family using money from their sugar plantations.
She Loved to Breathe – Pure Silence (1987) is an installation of hand-coloured prints which look at the UK’s discriminatory immigration protocol for Indian women during the 1970s. With both these installations too, people are absent but their stories are told through objects such as shoes, latex gloves, passports and jewellery.
If you have missed Zarina Bhimji’s photographs before, then the exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is worth visiting for her ability to explore the human dramas of colonialism, slavery and migration through the buildings and artefacts left behind.
Zarina Bhimji at the Whitechapel Gallery
19 January – 9 March 2012
Tuesday – Sunday, 11am-6pm. Monday closed.