Sharjah

Zarina Bhimji, I Will Always Be Here (detail), 1992, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Zarina Bhimji, I Will Always Be Here (detail), 1992, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Zarina Bhimji

Sharjah Art Foundation

In 1972 Idi Amin expelled eighty thousand South Asians from Uganda; among those who would eventually become refugees was eleven-year-old Zarina Bhimji. In her exhibition “Black Pocket,” that history unravels like the notes of an aromatic fougère, with sweetness morphing into damp mossy decay, faintly musty with spice. The survey spans thirty years and is a study in restraint: three films, three installations, three stand-alone photographs, and Untitled (A sketch), 1999, featuring three dresses, girlishly short, with Peter Pan collars, sewn out of maps of the subcontinent, East Africa, and Western Europe. Through these works the show charts her family’s migration and prefigures the cinematic trilogy that anchors the exhibition.

Bhimji’s mostly unpeopled films have a burnished quality that transcends the timescale of flesh. They tap into something deeper: architectural or geologic memories of long-gone populations whose bodies are absent but whose stories seem to have seeped into buildings and the natural environment like contaminated groundwater. Nondiegetic samples contribute heavily to the soundtrack, which has the same grainy, textured quality as the video imagery: atmospheric and eerie, an almost ghostly lament. Verdant hills burst into flame as if witnessing Amin’s brutality, as in Bhimji’s first film, Out of Blue, 2002, commissioned for Documenta 11. Crowded interior shots of dank prisons intimate the itchy terror of waiting to flee, and the peeling walls of abandoned houses seem liver-spotted with age.

In Yellow Patch, 2011, crumbling warehouses wait for those who traversed the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar—the first African port of call—and beyond. Unlike Out of Blue, it is shot in lush 35 mm transferred to HD, and the dissonance evokes time travel. Media, in contrast to ancestral memory, comes at you fast. Shots of cracked earth, lovely old stately homes, and the Port of Mandvi in Kutch paint a beautifully precise portrait of place alongside peacock cries, snippets of speeches from Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountbatten, and Nehru, and Sufi ghazals. Beats are slow, and the camera lingers on each scene like a warm, dry hand on your back. There’s no tension here, but rather a sun-bleached calm.

The films are rounded out with Jangbar, 2015, whose title is the Gujarati word for Zanzibar but which was shot in Kenya. It glides languorously through municipal spaces and disintegrating archives to chart the legal-spatial segregation of South Asians once they settled farther inland. South Asians were subjugated but still complicit in the colonial racial order and profited from their status as intermediaries between Europeans and Africans. This complicated situation is reflected in the soundtrack, which features conflicted whispers about wanting to please the British.

If environments bear witness, objects function as carriers of memory. The spare installation She Loved to Breathe Pure Silence, 1987, features eight gelatin silver prints mounted on muslin and sandwiched between sheets of Plexiglas, hanging above a long, mottled rectangle of turmeric and chili powder—Desis apparently used the latter to defend themselves against National Front attacks in 1980s Britain. Printed on the muslin are images of British visas and little red or blue fragments of text that detail Ismaili jewelry traditions or describe women sucking their teeth dismissively in response to racial slurs from white passersby. The photographs feature embroidered shoes and other personal effects and are tinted a delicate pink that belies the uglier subject of the work: the forced virginity testing of South Asian migrants to the UK that was abolished only in 1979.

In the evocative installation I Will Always Be Here, 1992, a slim shelf runs along two walls of a gallery. On and sometimes below it are glass boxes filled with objects. The overall effect is clinical, suggesting a catalogue of the forensic remains of a violently interrupted wedding: hair, balloons, a ceremonial coconut, a burnt sari, broken bangles, saffron, chilies, chiffon, a Sikh sword, wisdom teeth. On the walls above hover two more dresses, in spectral-white tissue paper this time, along with the title scrawled large: a threat and a promise.