The films of Zarina Bhimji are lonely places. Emptied-out landscapes waft across the screen, from a roiling sea to a single scrubby tree somehow growing out of cracked earth in an otherwise barren desert – perhaps lending her latest film its title, 'Yellow Patch' (2011). There are visible signs of life all around – from the scuffed walls of a crumbling old palace to an office ravaged by time and occupation – yet only a few mangy dogs ever disturb the dust in Bhimji's quiet temple locations and ancient-looking dockyards on the west coast of India.
A slowly building soundtrack starts to fill the narrative vacuum, first with snippets of crackly speeches by Lord Mountbatten, the British Governor General and Last Viceroy of India, before nature takes over again and the peacocks drown him out. The sounds of a nearby cricket match hang in the air as the camera slowly pans up the marble finery of a seated Queen Victoria, finally settling on the statue's battered, disfigured face, at which point a polite handclap breaks out. The inference is clear: well done, old girl – a fine mess you've made of this place, let's all bugger off home in time for tea.
This blatant jab at past colonial masters is as close as Bhimji ever gets to outright political commentary in her languid, lyrical filmmaking. Actually, her entire output is intensely loaded with historical weight, as the artist (trained in London and nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007) evidently researches each project exhaustively, spending around seven years in the production of the 30-minute-long 'Yellow Patch' alone. For example, Bhimji's father left his native Gujarat (possibly from the very port authority offices featured in the film) for a new life in Uganda on the East African seaboard, another outpost of the British Empire, where Zarina herself was born in 1963. Her lingering lens could well be a lament for a lost homeland, for a life not lived. Simply wondering what might have been had her father stayed, however, would reduce her labours to mere nostalgic travelogue. There's much more here that she's not telling us.
An earlier work, 'Out of Blue' (2002) also showing in Bhimji's retrospective at the Whitechapel, is the more urgent, darker prequel to 'Yellow Patch'. The harsh buzz of mosquitoes drone through the speakers as Bhimji pans over makeshift beds in a bleak boarding house, buried deep in a Ugandan jungle. These dilapidated barracks contain none of the imagined boy soldiers, only their rifles lie in wait and an occasional shadow passes in the low, straking light – Bhimji really only does dawns or dusks. Here all the buildings look like skulls, the graveyard appears bombed out and smouldering arable lands recall killing fields, rather than processes necessary for their cultivation. A biographical reading of 'Out of Blue' might focus on Bhimji's return to her birthplace and to the horrors of the brutal regime of General Idi Amin, which forced her family to flee for Britain in 1974. Again, this would be to presume too much and too little.
Rather than bemoan the baffling nature of much contemporary art, I'd suggest that Bhimji's work gives pause for thought, without expecting us to grasp her often complex contexts or backstories. There's viewing value enough in soaking up these unfamiliar scenes as there is in contemplating an epic landscape painting or a beautiful photograph – all solitary pursuits that require you to submit yourself wholly to the scenery.
In 1978, MoMA's legendary director of photography, John Szarkowski, staged a famous show called 'Mirrors and Windows' in which the 'mirror' photographers were interested in themselves and the medium, whereas those producing 'windows' were mere conduits for reporting on the world. Bhimji fits neither category, being neither a documentarian nor an out-and-out aesthete. Her photos and films instead travel through the looking glass, to a place outside linear time, politics, history or autobiography.
The closest I can get to describing the experience is to invoke the soundtrack again, specifically the lilting harmonies of Sufi singer Abida Parveen, which drift and crest like waves throughout both films. From what I can gather, the purpose of Sufism is to seek out a higher being or divine order in its many hidden forms in everyday life. There is something of the mystic Sufi quester in Bhimji. There's an itch in her work that just can't be scratched – so much is left unexplained and unspoken that they never approach satisfaction. Yet within the empty spaces of elegant decay she depicts I see the patina of people and a breadth of existence that it would be hard to find in a hundred straightforward stories or cinematic clichés.