Zarina Bhimji: Lead White at Tate Britain

Scattered rather than assembled, the photographs in Zarina Bhimji’s Lead White use the walls as a working surface for investigation. Seemingly hovering on the walls, viewers are tempted to step back and reorder the documents and artefacts that map a story woven across India, East Africa and Britain. A first glance at the wall of evidence appears to be part of a familiar narrative but the details presented here are merely pointers of a much deeper imprint about how power functions and its impact on the individual.

Born in Uganda, Bhimji and her family along with thousands of others were forcefully expelled in 1974 under Idi Amin’s brutal regime, amidst a growing climate of anti-Indian sentiment. Having lived and worked in Britain since, Bhimji continued to revisit the region with Lead White’s extensive research taking place over a 10-year period ‘delving into national archives to source objects and ephemera that together document and interrogate the legacies of the powerful and the monumental’.

Colonisation, emigration and the exodus largely defined the south Asian experience in East Africa in the 20th century. Refusing to instruct, the archive is laid out to reveal, yet conceal detail. Here the archivist appears to merely scrape the surface of an extensive history with the inclusions such as a document numbered 578 of 1875 and another labeled ‘Secret No 15’ or the blank page headed with ‘Answer or Explanation’. Other documents allude to inventories of weaponry with one photographed in reverse revealing only blots of ink seeping through the sheet.

Working across film, photography, and installation, Bhimji’s work consistently takes on a documentary format, with a refined gaze that homes in on grand historical narratives through a personal lens. Although a departure from her films of derelict spaces, the considered selection is evident here with Bhimji’s refined curatorial eye.

With the employment of such attention to detail, Bhimji’s work calls for more than a second glance. The accompanying book to the exhibition uses silver foil print on the cover which disappears when rubbed. Whether this is coincidental or planned is secondary, it is reminiscent of Bhimji’s film work and its subtlety is especially fitting.

In smaller snapshots are extracts from letters that provide a glimpse into emergent anti-colonial resistance from the British mainland, native authority within the colonies and newly independent states. In the age of Rhodes Must Fall, Britain’s place in the abolition movement [long before the scramble for Africa] is often overshadowed.

In one part of the display, an embroidered map hangs away from the digital photographs with the contrasting materials said to be reflective of the ‘tension between the present and past’. But a time where decolonisation practices and discourses have functioned as a soundtrack to visual culture, perhaps such a map also reveals the chasm within these new tendencies. As former townships become cosmopolitan capitals, traces of indigenous production are replaced with western reproductions bolstered by new tech, while consensus in the West shifts towards frameworks that prioritise repatriation.

Bhimji’s Lead White skilfully narrates the continually shifting states of power with anchor points that serve as powerful reminders of a resurgent past that refuses to fade away.

 

Lead White runs at Tate Britain until 2 June 2019

Sarah Peace Written by:

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