Fragments of a colonial past: Zarina Bhimji’s Lead White by Georgia Beeston
There is a stillness to Zarina Bhimji’s new installation, Lead White; an eerie silence that fills the gallery in Tate Britain as visitors are left to put together fragments of a colonial past that Bhimji leaves scattered across the gallery walls. It is an atmosphere that echoes the tension explored by the artist between past and present, colonial and post-colonial, text and the visual.
The work is situated in a large room at the Tate and is divided into three sections; the first two are extracts of archival documents and colonial stamps that Bhimji blows-up as photographs, together with embroidered colonial maps. The installation is the result of a decade’s worth of research that Bhimji underwent in the archives in Zanzibar from which she then photographed, cropped, cut, and manipulated the material, recontextualising it within the museum. She then places these fragments next to one another, seemingly unconnected but creating a large historical picture when together.
Bhimji’s family came to the UK as refugees in the 1970s having fled Uganda following the 1972 expulsion of over 80,000 people of South Asian lineage. She returned decades later having studied Fine Art at Leicester Polytechnic and later at the Slade. Working predominantly in film prior to the installation, much of her practice considers the relationship between past and present, memory and history.
‘I was interested in [themes of] power, vulnerability, and erasure,’ Bhimji explained during a talk at SOAS University. Such themes are evident throughout the exhibition as Bhimji offers the audience fragments of the past. Although she distances herself from the word “colonial,” stating that it is too ‘painful’ and ‘aggressive’ and narrows the scope her work, European Imperialism is constant throughout, with extracts from documents addressing “a British subject” or the “colonial office.” Here, Bhimji uses her medium to confront the viewer into producing their own understanding of history. ‘I am an artist, I use a visual medium,’ she explained. ‘If I could write about [colonialism] or talk about it that’s what I would do but actually, the work physically happens and that intensity from the beginning to the end is really important.’
The artist refers to her practice as ‘detective work’ and as one looks closer at the archival fragments, discernible links between them become clear. A red line runs throughout the installation; linking the stamps of the East African Protectorate, to the Franco-Liberian boundary line of a map, and what appears to be an arms “shopping list” that notes “bayonets” and “strap caps.” Likewise, Queen Victoria’s face, imprinted on a stamp of the Ugandan Protectorate, echoes the “Victoria Road” address in Karachi that hangs opposite. An official document from the Conference of Berlin in 1885 in which the European powers divided the African continent is visually transposed onto an embroidered map of Africa that hangs on inscribed with countries given the colonial names “French West Africa” and “Belgian Congo.” Thus, the archival snippets begin to form a much wider, darker understanding of history.
The relationship between the word and the image is constant throughout the installation and reminds the viewer that the work has both aesthetic and historical significance. The title itself refers to a type of paint used in European painting until the 19th century when it was restricted for its poisonous content. The visual and toxic nature of lead white makes it an apt title for the installation. ‘I had just come back from the archives in Zanzibar and I thought that that word “lead white” felt like that feeling I felt when handling the archives,’ Bhimji described.
This tension between the visuality of a piece and its “toxic” content is perhaps clearest in d., white, the embroidered replica of a colonial map of Africa dating to 1909. ‘I was in the archives and I actually burst into tears reading these books on how Africa was carved up in Europe,’ Bhimji explained. ‘I wanted [the map] to be beautiful. I wanted it to feel like linen fabric that you would have in bed…[and be] vulnerable under.’ Just like the lead white paint, underlying the beautifully crafted map is a toxic colonial history.
The installation has particular significance within an institution such as the Tate which is itself rooted in colonial history. ‘A few years ago, I would not have exhibited [at the Tate],’ Bhimji said. ‘But now I think it is critical to and it is a critique in a way… if you do not take up those spaces nothing will change.’
In accepting the space, Bhimji was adamant that the installation be hung is her way. Refusing Tate’s wish to label the work “colonial,” Bhimji stands out as an artist who uses the museum to challenge not only the viewer’s perception of the past but the institution itself. ‘I feel that I need to make work on my terms,’ she stated. ‘I cannot take responsibility for everybody. I am a woman of colour and it is bad enough as it is. It is a privilege to be an artist and I will take that place as I want it.’
Raising questions but offering no answers, Bhimji places the responsibility on us as witnesses to her art. It would be impossible to understand Lead White without seeing it in its entirety for, by supplying only the fragments, Bhimji makes interpreting the installation utterly dependent on the viewer and their understanding of the archival history.
Lead White is on display at Tate Britain until 2 June 2019.