Zarina Bhimji

Another OCA day! However, I find myself wondering about the nature of this exhibition since it by someone who appears to be an artist rather than a photographer, someone who uses photography as one of a number of media. Although I more interested in "pure" photographers this does not put me off attending although I am not encouraged by the review that the OCA encourages us to read. Entitled, "History in Context", it is well written but there is the notion from it's very complexity that if one needs to understand photographic work at such a level then it is becoming elitist and the democratic nature of photography, a form of creative expression that can communicate with anyone who has eyes, is being undermined. This objection might be raised at the OCA discussion that usually takes place after the viewing of the exhibition; I can not see it being a very popular topic though as the role of photographer as artist tends to be an assumption these days, a position that has been fought for and won. However, I might be questioning the role of art which is a wider topic beyond the subject of today's visit.

Her website is worth a look …

There is also a Flickr group about her approach to landscape (she says she has been influenced by a number of landscape painters such as Constable and others).

I arrived half an hour early at the gallery and was met by OCA tutor Clive White and his wife, Daniella. It is really the presence of a tutor such as Clive that makes days such as this worthwhile for they are able to give feedback and comment. As we enjoyed the warm sunshine on an otherwise bitterly cold day, Clive told me of a project from his student days in which he photographed people and places in the Oxfordshire village in which he was born; he later went back and photographed the same by which time many of the original inhabitants had become marginalized by the arrival of a more middle class group of people who had turned the village into their idea of what an English village should be. This interested me because in the hamlet where I live, the village ceased to exist about 100 years ago and became a residential area in which there is little communication between neighbours who no longer have a sense of community after the village lost it’s public house and shops. Recently though, the sale of the old telephone box has encouraged people to come together and there are plans for a Jubilee celebration;a worthy subject for photography perhaps and one that starts with the Somerset Records Office which brings me back to Zarina Bhimji, a photographer who does a lot of research before committing with the camera.

Soon other students start to arrive such as Stephanie from Bath as well as David Beveridge from Somerset. Keith Greenough is a student from London who I met on a workshop last year with Alex Webb, the Magnum photographer. There is talk of the art of making photo-books and the possibility of it being included in the OCA curriculum. Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA arrives, and now the day starts to assume some definite form as students are checked in. There are 21 in all and as the day progresses I recognise more faces!


We group at the entrance to the gallery and as I make a shot of the bookstore, a member of staff tells me that no photography at all is allowed in the gallery. I obey but make photos of our group in the cafeteria later on as some record of the day is required. What exactly is the reason for the banning of photography? I might have asked but accepted the fact that the gallery is a private space while the images showing in it are copyrighted. Unfortunate though, as it makes study of such work harder and prevents the use of images in this blog except via links which often expire.

At the entrance to the exhibition were some words by Zarina Bhimji about the intent behind her work …
“My work is not about the actual facts but about the echo they create …”
and elsewhere …
“My work is not an idea of fact or scraps of evidence to support the assertion of history. The process is something about traces as symptoms of strange structural links between history, memory and fantasy.”

I realize that my interest in this exhibition is partly informed by colonialism which as a frequent visitor to India is something I have been obliged to consider; the book by E.M.Forster “A Passage to India” which I am presently reading throws much light on this subject but through a different medium. The first group of photos we see are from the film Yellow Patch and were made in India of places her family inhabited before leaving for East Africa.

Bhimji’s work also asks one to consider colonialism as it existed in East Africa and although Indians were involved here, it had a different character if only because of African nationalism and Idi Amin who threw all Asians out of Uganda. Although Bhimji’s work is not directly autobiographical, she was forced to leave East Africa as an 11 year old child in 1974. Her images are documentary in approach, made possible by her own in-depth research into her subject, and yet her presentation is not factual relying more on the viewer’s imagination which is guided by the content of her photographs.

One of the first photographs we look at together is called “Frightened by goats”; there is no sign of any goats in the image and after awhile, it becomes apparent that the scene is of a graveyard, a graveyard for Indians, a fact that only becomes truly apparent in the film from which they are taken. One might reflect on the fact that these graves are no longer tended by the descendants of those who made them for these people emigrated.
The first two photographs one sees one entering the exhibition are black and white images, possibly infrared, of the beach; there is a deliberate intention to get away from the generic travel photograph of the beach as there is of travel photography as a whole in this exhibition. Bhimji revisits places not as a tourist but as a family researcher and artist.


Another colour image that catches the eye, is of a group of guns lined up against a wall; this image is entitled “Illegal sleep” another reminder of the intuitive use of caption that challenge one’s understanding of the image rather than complementing it.

I can’t help though, noticing the somewhat tacky approach of the photographer in regards to both exposure and composition; presumably this is an intended part of the effect rather than negligence since professionally executed images of the scenes depicted here might appear rather insensitive and out of harmony with the atmosphere of decay that forms much of the pictorial content. There is a photograph of boats in the twilight called “Breathless Love” where one feels that some kind of post-processing might have been employed to counter the tyranny of the photograph yet this might have easily destroyed the mood that the image invokes.

The exhibition does not contain only images since there is material that reminds one of the considerable research Bhimji conducts for the making of her photographs. Hence we see colour polaroids (apparently used as a storyboard) and xeroxes of illustrations she has collected while there are three shirt tops with maps printed on them encased in a glass covered frame.

While much of her work appears to be self-initiated, she works with different organisations and was commissioned to do a series of images around Harewood House, the original owners of which were involved in the slave trade. Colonisation is a theme if not the theme behind Bhimji’s work and here she touches on the more savage aspects of it. There is a beautiful photograph of a finely designed chair on which sunlight falls while there are also mirrors on which text has been engraved, text that relates to the use of people from the colonies as servants if not slaves.

In another room is an installation called “She loved to breathe – pure silence” that relates to the scandalous “virginity testing” of Asian immigrants by the 1970’s by British Customs before it was declared illegal. Red and yellow powder (chilli and turmeric) is strewn over the floor above which are suspended back to back photographs in plexiglass as well as a pair of latex gloves that were used in the practice of “virginity testing”. The installation is apparently owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum yet the used of coloured spice on the floor will obviously vary from exhibition to exhibition. Much of Bhimji’s work is emotionally charged and while that might be art, I can not help but reflect on the whole “virginity testing” matter; although this was done by the British authorities, there must have been considerable influence from the Asian community to make this happen since virginity is prized by some religious communities and not much by British communities. There is a political message behind this exhibition which makes me feel a little uncomfortable not entirely because I am as a British white male and hence in the firing line but also because there are two sides to everything and the purity of race is something that matters more to many Asians than it does British people.

We see the film made by Bhimji called “Out of the Blue” (2002) which uses imagery, much of it of architectural interiors as well as exteriors, that along with sound give a feeling of the intense suffering that must have gone on around this event. There is an atmosphere of fear and although the film ends on a positive note, that of a airfield runway and the enveloping blue sky, one is left with a haunting feeling of an experience that has not been resolved. A period of intense suffering has ended but its’ enduring negative affect still lingers.


We break for a drink and a bite to eat before reassembling to see “Yellow Patch” another of Bhimji’s films; she is a photographer who has moved into film making but does not use the cinema as a way to entertain the masses rather as a medium to convey the evidence of a forced migration in a metaphorical way. Although informed by evidence, we are not presented with facts merely the detritus of a piece of history that has largely been ignored or simply forgotten except by those who endured it. There are wider themes than the mere suffering of individuals and the words colonialism, migration, Britain and Africa in their more sinister aspects come to mind.

Overall, I find Bhimji’s work slightly oppressive; I am ready to see and understand the suffering she wishes to record and relate yet I also want to see beyond that because this seems to me to be a function of art.

Clive White, the OCA photographic tutor accompanying us, provides some kind of explanation of questions that have come up for me and obviously other students during the day. For instance, the tackiness of some of the presentation (I find the exhibition catalogue to have been poorly printed and hence fails to convey Bhimji’s concern with light and composition) highlights a divide between truly professional photography where subjects are accurately portrayed and a more artistic approach in which accuracy is considered irrelevant since the end result is art and answers only to itself and the photographers intention.
Clive also talks about how colour theory can be misleading to photographic students who try to exactly stick to the suggestions given; in real life, the photographer cannot choose the colours he is confronted with and has to make do with what is there. My own understanding of colour theory is that it makes one more aware of colour in a photograph and that is important, conforming to certain art based conventions is not.

Further student debate revolves around the role personal vision might play in photography. Many of us start photographing because we like to take photographs but will we ever learn to make photographs? It is possible to make a personal statement through the medium of photography and this is what Bhimji is doing and something we all have the potential to do even if we have to photograph consumer goods to make a living.

I did buy the exhibition catalogue as there seemed to be a lot more that I might learn and understand about the exhibition; it also helped to correct misunderstandings that had arisen during the visit. For instance, the second film we saw Yellow Patch was shot in Gujarat, India (not East Africa) in a place that I happened to have visited. Kutch is an area good for wildlife yet one is also aware of the culture with ruined palaces and forts not being uncommon. Interesting to learn that there was an exodus from this part of India to E.Africa.