Yellow Patch

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, 1940

We meet Zarina Bhimji at De Appel where she is completing the installation of the viewing room for her films Yellow Patch (2011) and Waiting (2007). She tells us she doesn’t like interviews, tries to avoid them even, yet her words are warm and the conversation inevitably moves towards her work.

The making of her newest film Yellow Patch involved a several year long period of research into colonial histories. It was filmed in different locations in India: the Princess Docks in Bombay, the desert area of Rann of Kutch and the Mandvi port in Gujarat. Bhimji tells us the film loosely explores the places of her father’s childhood’s journey from India to the African continent. He finally settled in Uganda, where in 1963 Bhimji was born. ‘It was this act of bravery, embedded in his travel, that intrigued me’, she tells us.

We view the film in silence. From the large screen, vivid colors and arcane sounds touch our skin, they softly enter into the pores before reaching the mind. One can almost feel the texture of the piled up documents of cracked papers worn by time, as one hears the echoed voice of Jawarharial Nehru proclaiming ‘The soul of a nation… long suppressed’. These words were taken from his historical speech ‘Tryst with Destiny’ given on the eve of India’s independence in 1947, while the documents remain anonymous and are still part of an unnamed office. For Yellow Patch Bhimji dwelled in the archives of the British library, state archives in Bombay, the colonial archives of Kenya, retrieving shipping records and the legal documents of John Kirk in the Zanzibar archive, among others. In particular, she looked into the history of the construction of the Uganda Railway (now known as the Kenya Railway). It was built between 1885 and 1905, stretching almost 600 km, and for which many Indians were employed. In Yellow Patch, the railway is missing, there are no trains to be seen, only some seemingly abandoned boats, but the smashed face of a sculpture of Queen Victoria quietly set on a corner seems to prefigure the specters of progress.

Actually, memory (both personal and generational) is not just a line up of facts and documents. Also for Bhimji, imagination and fiction are as important as archival research. ‘During my research, I start creating all kinds of characters’, she tells us, ‘they don’t really exist, but they are in my mind’. Yellow Patch is almost devoid of human presence, but for the artist, an illiterate woman, young African boys playing and a colonial master ‘form the hidden catalysts of the film and are its symbolical patches’.

As the film traces a migration story (of the artist’s father), in its intimate connection to stones, nature and history it encapsulates what cannot really be articulated in history books. In the beautiful details of a desk, or the colors of a peacock, it encapsulates stories that remain ambiguous, untold, unknown, yet experienced and present in the body tissue. As we follow sequences of empty rooms and broken statues, the past and the present somehow evade the experience of one life only. We have to think of T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets. The cracked land of the desert of Rann of Kutch, or the sound of the wind, become a ‘backward look behind the assurance of recorded history’. To say it with the poet’s words these images and sounds in Yellow Patch point to the ‘not forgetting of something that is quite ineffable’.

Zarina Bhimji en Dirk Braeckman
De Appel, Amsterdam
17 nov 2012 — 31 mrt 2013

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020