I had to look it up to make sure I fully understood what it meant.
- The quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating
- The ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions
Synonyms: echo - reverberation
From Wikipedia: “In physics, resonance is the tendency of a system to oscillate at a greater amplitude at some frequencies than at others. These are known as the system's resonant frequencies (or resonance frequencies). At these frequencies, even small periodic driving forces can produce large amplitude oscillations, because the system stores vibrational energy.”
I checked this because the Aesthetica write-up on Zarina Bhimji’s work said: “It is the tension of translation, the exchange, the resonance between an extremely beautiful still landscape and the one on fire that gives energy and defines reality.”
I didn’t know that it could be grammatically correct to have resonance ‘between’ things. An interesting idea to explore in the future.
Having done a little research on the Bhimji show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in advance, I was not expecting to really like her work. The photographs looked haphazard, technically poor and rather boringly flat. Viewed in the gallery they are much more impressive though, and once seen in the context of the two films, which are at the heart of this project, they take on a whole new life.
Bhimji was born in Mbarara, Uganda in 1963 to Indian parents. Many Asians came to Africa as indentured workers during the time of the British Empire – particularly to build railways and other infrastructure. Over time, these immigrants settled and prospered but in places faced resentment from indigenous populations. In 1972 Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda, giving them just 90 days to leave the country. As British citizens, many moved to the UK. The artist’s sense of this dislocation is very prevalent in all of her work.
Our gallery guide talked about Bhimji not being a documentary photographer but taking a more intuitive approach to tell a story - that she likes to create characters and then inhabit them, to create spaces for the viewer to exist in. The facing images as one enters the gallery are quite haunting seascapes rendered in black and white, to avoid a travel brochure appearance. The images have no real context and set the tone that this is not going to be a chronologically rendered story.
The rich colours, tones and delicate lighting really make the photographs worth a long look. They were shot on slow film with long exposures, exteriors at dawn or dusk and interiors in the late afternoon. The artist claims that digital technology could not achieve the same tonal quality (nonsense, surely?) There are no people. Just lingering signs of human life. The horizontals are slanted and skewed; perhaps - as another student suggested - to give a sense of everything being unsettled, although the subject matter was solidly rooted. This aspect bothered me a bit and had certainly been one of things that alienated the images from me to begin with, before seeing the films. It was suggested that it would make more sense if seen as a still from a tracking shot.
Our guide talked about the tragedy of being driven away from the graves of loved ones when forced to flee a country (image called “Frightened Goats”). She has tried to depict not actual facts but the echoes created by this history.
The show contains a large body of work indicating the extensive research she has carried out – beautiful panoramas stuck together imprecisely from small prints, painterly Polaroids, lots of very dark interiors. There are three maps cut to the shape of a little girl’s dress – of India, Africa and Europe.
A second room shows a different style – sumptuous colours and decorative patterns in light boxes. This is work commissioned for Harewood House in Leeds and from her ‘Cleaning the House’ exhibition, with images also from the Gardens of Alhambra in Grenada. She talks about crossing the boundaries of science and art, creativity and physics, and metaphors for the cross-fertilisation of cultures. Harewood House was built on wealth from sugar plantations and slave-trading so there is an exploration of colonialism and post-colonialism. One striking element was the depiction of newspaper ads asking for information about slaves who had fled their owners are etched onto mirrors. Hard to read if you are looking straight at the words. I found myself standing to the side, my own face out of sight, to read these properly. Are we complicit? Are we in denial, desperate to forget this shameful past?
A third room has chilli powder (used as a weapon of defence by the new immigrants in 70s Britain?) and other spices on the floor, beautiful images of dead birds and Indian shoes, close-ups of mosquitoes on cloth. Symbols, reminders, words on parchment that are almost indecipherable. A human story that I will never truly understand, but the whispers of it carry me to somewhere I have never been.
Both the films – Out of the Blue (2002) and Yellow Patch (2011) - are stunning. Loud, unsettling, haunting, beautiful, bitter – a dizzying journey for the senses. I found myself immersed and mesmerised for the duration of each film, forced to really contemplate the loss, the passing of time, the exquisite loveliness, the mundane, the enduring. Tiny details, agonisingly, meticulously, silently filmed. Some of it feels a bit like a descent into some kind of madness but is actually quite calming. I found Yellow Patch particularly appealing – so many frames that could have been stills but for the gentle breeze lapping at the piles of old papers and dilapidated furniture. Bhimji uses wind and fire to bring life to these history sites. She combines motion film and sound and still photography to create an extraordinary work of art – so personal and yet so universal. It would be impossible for the viewer not to find some truth, some connection here.
I came away from this study tour really inspired to take a new approach to my work. To let myself look at things differently – not getting hung up on technical perfection but to let more of what I see and what I feel have its own resonance. And that will hopefully chime with others, if they can take the time to stop and see. The worth – the power and beauty – of Bhimji’s work almost passed me by and than in itself was a big lesson.