Zarina Bhimji is of Indian descent, and left Uganda at the age of 11 in 1974 in the wake of the expulsions of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin. That displacement is central to her work. In her exhibition at the Whitechapel, her first full retrospective, she examines and re-examines her experience of being uprooted in lyrical terms.
Bhimji has developed the habit of revisiting her own work over a period of years, which means that she seems to have produced less material than many artists. This imposes a burden on each piece to carry a more significant part of her message than it sometimes can. This exhibition, in essence, consists of two powerful films (Out of Blue, shown at Documenta, Kassel, in 2002 and Yellow Patch from 2011), along with pictures Bhimji made in preparing for them, plus a small number of unconnected pieces.
As a filmmaker, Bhimji has three notable qualities. She includes no people, preferring to show their works mainly in slow, caressing passes over buildings, usually abandoned. She works without any attempt at making a linear narrative, leaving space for her viewers to fit their own recollections and regrets into. And she makes the most wonderful soundtracks.
In both films, it is the sound that is transfixing, creating something more precise than a mere mood. Working mainly with what seems to be ambient noise, but is in fact only occasionally matched to the picture it accompanies, Bhimji gives accurate colour to a rich spectrum of elegiac experiences. Her soundtracks are close to lyric poetry, and indeed they quote certain Sufi poems sung by Abida Parveen, but apart from that they have no words. They are close also to certain kinds of music – although they have no notes. They achieve accurate communication through controlled abstraction, and this haunting examination through sound of what it means to have lost a culture yet still have the chance of peering back at it is unforgettable.
Nothing else in the show matches this. As a visual artist, Bhimji is less precise, and sometimes her allusions are too general to have much effect. When she makes something herself – a very fine installation with photographs and other material hanging in space in the middle of a room, over a floor exquisitely dusted with turmeric and saffron – she brings something wholly new into being, richly imbued with her own memories and analysis. But when she merely harvests objects for their purported significance, as in a series called “Love”, of large photographs with evocative titles (made in Uganda in connection with Out of the Blue between 1998 and 2007), then the refusal to nail meanings down becomes a lack.
“Love” includes, for example, a picture of a filing cabinet, glass-fronted, with crude labels on each section that identify it as having come from a police station. “Duties of a Police Officer at the Scene of a Crime”, says one. “Armories, Police Arms and Civilian Arms”, says another, and then more succinctly, “Leadership”. Then “Rape”. There is great significance in the object that was photographed, but deliberately none at all in the manner of its being photographed. This makes an odd contrast to a group of five pictures made in 1989 with a giant Polaroid camera on a commission from the V&A, where the significance is all in the manner of seeing and the idiosyncrasies of a rare and cumbrous piece of equipment.
By means of careful texts, the curators attempt on Bhimji’s behalf to claim that all of these various threads are bound together into a coherent whole. I don’t think they are. Rather, Bhimji works from exposure to a wide range of issues, including feminism, colonialism, exile, the degree of reliance one can place on objects for testimony and many more. But she has no programme and seems to wish nothing more of her audience than to experience the art works.
One series in particular, “Cleaning the Garden”, is a peculiar mixture. It is partly a reflection on the different traditions of garden design in 18th-century Britain compared with Moorish Spain, and partly a meditation on systems of social control. It consists of various types of photograph (details both found and created, landscapes, interiors . . . ) mounted in various ways, as well as mirrors with quotations from old British advertisements about slaves etched on them. It’s interesting and parts of it are beautiful, but it’s not coherent. It’s not really possible to grasp this as a whole. But it is possible to be moved by it, and that may be enough.
Until March 9, www.whitechapelgallery.org