In conversation with Zarina Bhimji on her exhibition Lead White

Zarina Bhimji was born in Mbarara, Uganda in 1963. She received a BA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, University of London and an MA from the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2007, Bhimji has had major solo exhibitions in the UK and internationally. Her work is held in a number of public collections including Tate, Art Institute of Chicago and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Bhimji’s latest exhibition, Lead White, is currently on show as one of Tate Britain’s artist Spotlights display in London.

Lucy Nagar, Senior Development Manager at Goldsmiths, recently met up with Bhimji to discuss her recent work:

Zarina Bhimji tells me that she first started using archives around 10 to 15 years ago; she is interested in what the archive can tell us and what we can learn about those who created it: “A bit like a musical score, there are patterns as well as differences throughout an archive, all of which create, a sound score in the way the installation is hung.  What does it say about the people who collected the archive and about the culture of the people who collected this archive ”.

Looking back through her works, the archive has played a pivotal role. As part of Bhimji’s research for her show Cleaning the Garden in 2000, she began looking in archives for old advertisements for servants ( young black boys)working in homes on sugar plantations and other jobs. Later, she looked at newspaper clippings from all over the world for her first film Out of the Blue, filmed in Uganda and demonstrates the aftermath from Idi Amin’s rise to power. The work is exploring elimination, erasure, extermination. Trawling the archive helped portray what happened, by piecing together how certain events were viewed through different lenses around the world. Out of the Blue is about a period of time she says, not her own personal childhood as some critics wrote.

In her latest exhibition Lead White at Tate Britain, Bhimji sees her work as an investigation into the nature of archives in general. What is their purpose? Are they a reflection of the people who created them? How do they reflect society today? It’s a lengthy process of gathering information from a multitude of angles and looking at the texture and tone. Lead White took 10 years to create – something which I say sounds painstaking, but Bhimji says was a privilege: “researching, investigating, gathering information and understanding is an important part of the art” she says.

Zarina Bhimji 1/2 d, white (detail) 2018 © Zarina Bhimji
Zarina Bhimji 1/2 d, white (detail) 2018 © Zarina Bhimji Hand embroidery, applique edged with coloured silks, on cotton

Bhimji undoubtedly has an expert curatorial eye, although she cites she is an artist, not a historian. The documents in Lead White have been meticulously collected and come from a wide variety of sources, exploring topics such as national health, education and contemporary Africa. There are legal and constitutional documents, but also photographs and personal effects. A particular point of interest in Lead White is paper and how texture and light function as an echo of the themes investigated. Other materials include the traditional craft of embroidery, carefully used to express forms of knowledge that have never been recorded in written form before. The impact is delicate and beautiful. Bhimji is interested in textiles and considered studying it when she came to Goldsmiths in the 1980s, although ultimately decided Fine Art would be more challenging for her. She was the first in her family to attend university and didn’t know at that time what it really meant to be an artist.

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© Zarina Bhimji

Bhimji loved her undergraduate years at Goldsmiths, and she smiles as she tells me. Her passion for knowledge and researching was confirmed. At that time, the art department was based in Camberwell where Bhimji enjoyed having her own studio space and remembers that her library card said “Ms” and not “Miss”, which was particularly pleasing to her.

 

Bhimji originally thought she would become a teacher after graduation, but instead learnt what it was to “be an artist”, and acknowledges the artists and educators Mary Kelly and John Wood as influential mentors to her whilst at Goldsmiths. Becoming an artist was a risk, but advice Bhimji would encourage students to take today. She recalls it was important to her to be financially independent as a woman; something that still resonates today. Sarat Maharaj, who is Professor of Art and Art Theory once told Bhimji that the Bronte sisters couldn’t own their own property – a fact that has stayed with her over the years and influences her work still today, where she explores the themes of equality throughout Lead White.

Zarina Bhimji: Lead White is being exhibited at Tate Britain (Main floor) until 2 June 2019.

See more of Bhimji’s works.

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