by Shraddha NairOct 03, 2021
In a milestone exhibition, artist Zarina Bhimji brings together over 30 years of artistic inquiry under one roof. Zarina Bhimji: Black Pocket brings together film, installation and photography in a solo presentation at Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF). In an exclusive chat with STIR, Bhimji talks about her practice so far and its various influences.
Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of SAF, the showcase occupies three gallery spaces, comprising a distilled perspective of the artist’s repertoire. In a reflection of her journey so far, Bhimji says, “I was surprised to realise that I have used so many materials over my career. But I saw that I have always been interested in materials: photography, film, embroidery, textile, glass, and sound. Space has always been important, too. I am interested in architecture, light, shapes, objects: all of these things, in the end, are part of space. Whatever I have wanted to express, I have wanted to find the material that can express it: glass, embroidery, photography etc. I have also been reflecting on my role as an artist. Why is it important? In terms of speaking and creating, I feel I shouldn’t be confined by institutional expectations. Artists ask questions and bring a different type of knowledge, a knowledge embodied in production”.
Bhimji’s practice is concerned with politics of power and structures of authority and how they have influenced social interactions across the globe over the years, a narrative she merges with her own lived experiences. “My mother was illiterate and partially blind. Being close to her, I learned how she made sense of the world around her. There is a film by a director named Samira Makhmalbaf, called Blackboards, about Kurdish teachers roaming the mountains on the Iran / Iraq border. This film made me think about my mother's illiteracy and about my own education. In Africa, schooling wasn’t free but when I came to the UK, education was free and I made the most of it. This gave me the freedom to be an artist and choose what I wanted to do. For example, I saw that I didn’t have to get married, have children, and be a housewife," she says.
Having grown up at various points across the globe, the artist discusses diaspora and identity and the role it played in her childhood. She says, “I was born in Africa to Indian parents: British India and British Africa. That must have influenced me. At the same time, I had other connections: to the smells, sounds, landscapes, languages, religion, colour.
In Leicester, we were a new wave of immigrants. This was the time of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and National Front marches. In my classroom, I had girls who were Muslim, Hindu and Sikh but they were all from the subcontinent. There were very few people from Uganda. There was a tension about what a girl should be. I was aware of expectations about what a girl should be from very early on and I decided that my way out of that would be through education. I chose art because I didn’t learn to read and write in English until I was 11. I spoke other languages: Swahili and Ankola, Hindi, Gujarati, Kutchi, but I didn’t learn to read and write those languages.
The girls I hung around with thought they should be Indian film models and I learned the gestures and the dances. There was a tension about high expectations of life - studying sociology helped me understand this. Because we were new immigrants, we were still working out what it meant to be in this new world. That probably gave me a way ahead - everyone was grappling with that.
I remember that in the Girl Guides, I had to clean the toilets because I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I thought: you wait, I am not going to be a toilet cleaner forever. I didn’t enjoy swearing to the Queen. I didn’t know who the Queen was and what she might want from me. I took my responsibility seriously. I didn’t want to do it unless I could keep my word. The importance I give to truth must have developed early on. That’s what I do in my work: working and understanding different sides. In my film, I make sure that I don’t give anybody a privileged position, which means I have to embody these characters. What does the toilet cleaner feel like? Is it shame? What does the man who directs a company feel like? I want to understand those possibilities”.
Bhimji’s installation works build an immersive space for the viewer to soak in her world of experiences. The exhibition stitches together cultural research and collective histories while weaving together personal enquiry and experience. Her work reads as a history museum as viewed through a personal eye, a microcosm in the larger narrative of female diaspora from the Indian subcontinent. The artist has recently received the Simthsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2020-2021).
Zarina Bhimji: Black Pocket was opened to the public on October 2, 2020, and is on display until April 10, 2021, at Galleries 4, 5 and 6 at Al Mureijah Art Spaces at the Sharjah Art Foundation in Sharjah, UAE.