Zarina Bhimji at the Whitechapel Art Gallery

This week I have remedied a large gap in my cultural experience of London by visiting the Whitechapel Gallery for the first time.  It wasn’t my first attempt; that was stymied by the fact that the Gallery isn’t open on a Monday; the very day I had earmarked for the excursion to what, for me, feels like an awkward part of London to get to.

There was no real purpose to the visit other than to discover the Gallery, meet up with a friend and have a cup of coffee.  (I may not have properly noted the opening hours, but I had checked there was a decent looking caff).  So it was an unexpected pleasure to discover a number of engaging exhibitions.

The Zarina Bhimji exhibition is a major retrospective, comprising two films Out of the Blue and Yellow Patch as well as photographs of what might be stills from the films.  I found the films beguiling: close, slow examination of abandoned and crumbling places in India and Uganda, accompanied by the sounds of sometimes the wind, or the chatter of people who might once have been there, or of the cries of children playing a long time ago.

They were films and images about absence and abandonment; there are very few shots of people, and only the occasional dog or marching army of ants or spiders at the centre of great webs inhabit buildings whose windows are gone and where the walls are disappearing under black mould.  All of these places were built, in some splendour, by man, were used, but are now abandoned.  If they’d not been constructed, the landscape would not have looked as deserted as it does because of our understanding that the people have been and gone.

Two series of images have stayed with me, the slow gliding over every surface in the abandoned buildings of Entebbe airport, the cracked tiles, a pair of plastic shoes stuck in a window grill, power lines dangling from ceilings and chickens pecking on rough ground in a backyard; and the equally slow examination of a sad and neglected white statue of Queen Victoria, starting at the foot resting on a plumped up little footstool, across the drapes and lacy frills of her dress up to the smashed face, as the camera finally pans out to show her dumped in the corner of a dusty yard somewhere in India.

I liked the photograph of court papers stacked in an untidy pile, tied with string and identified with pink post-it notes as relating to Indian traffic offences in the 1980s.  This, like many of the works, is about the accretion of stuff, and the layers of things we leave behind.

Coming to the show in complete ignorance, I left thinking about what the act of departure creates.

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