This week The Whitechapel Gallery opens the UK’s most significant survey of works by photographer and filmmaker Zarina Bhimji. Tracing the development of her work over 25 years, the exhibition offers an insight in to the driving inspiration behind this artist’s endeavours.  It also provides the first opportunity to see her new film, Yellow Patch

The exhibition opens with two black and white seascapes, shot in Zanzibar. While the vibrant colours of Bhimji’s works are absent in these images, the photographer’s skill with form and composition is clear.  They also set the scene for an exhibition of work devoid of human subjects. 

The walls of the first gallery are adorned with pieces from Bhimji’s Love series, developed between 1998 and 2007.  Shot in Uganda, the images introduce the artist’s concern with the marks left by human activity, rather than with active humans themselves -- a concern which runs throughout Bhimji’s work.  The images range from forlorn shots of airports, such as Bapa Closed His Heart, It Was Over (2001-2006), to tranquil images of boat yards (Breathless Love (2007)), and the somewhat ominous Indispensible Monument, a shot of a police station’s work cabinet.

It is worth considering how important the artist’s naming process is in these works. The meaning and sentiment of the works would be entirely different, not to mention ambiguous, were it not for the titles given to them. An incredible stillness runs through all of the images, and the differing connotations of this stillness are provided by those names. The process defines the relationship between the photographer and the subject of the piece, it goes some way towards explaining what it means, or meant, to her. What emerges from this is just how personally resonant these images are for the artist.  The series is complemented by the showing of Bhimji’s film Out of the Blue at the end of the exhibition, which considers in many ways the 1970s expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin, which Bhimji herself was subjected to.

In the middle room Bhimji’s new film, Yellow Patch (2011) is on show, which traces the migration between East Africa and South Asia. Lacking any form of narration, the 25-minute film is composed of striking images of the coasts and offices involved in the route. The only point at which sound and picture come together is for a brief moment when the image of the sea and the sound of waves coincide. Apart from that the two progress separately, creating a new narrative through the disconnection.

Moving to the upstairs galleries, and away from the Love series, the spectator finds what is perhaps the most aesthetically interesting room of the exhibition. Cleaning The Garden presents works commissioned by Harewood House, near Leeds, coupled with images from the Alhambra in Granada. The contrast between the eastern and western traditions is well balanced. Harewood is a typically English garden, built by Capability Brown, while the Alhambra was built by Grenada’s African rulers at a time when it was the Emirate of Granada; each image finds its reflection in the opposite culture. Each coupling is punctuated by a brilliant mirror, printed with adverts for slaves, driving home the ethnic disparity of the times of origins for both these places.

What is clear throughout Bhimji’s works is that her concern is with the routes and links between places and people, not with the persons travelling those routes. A series of pictures taken in a malaria research lab concludes with a picture of a cot taken in a malaria clinic in Asia, without featuring any individuals. In the middle of the same room hang a series of photographs suspended from the ceiling, sandwiched in plexiglass. The images concern themselves with objects involved in Asian women’s arrival at Heathrow in the 1970s, and the shocking fact that they had their virginity tested. Below the images, the floor is dusted with chili and turmeric -- traditional Asian spices -- the smell of which is sensed as soon as the visitor arrives at the Whitechapel. Again, no human subjects are featured.

This examination of channels between cultures is fascinating. The tonal contrasts and composition of the works are beautiful, and undeniably demonstrate the artist’s skill. But perhaps there is something that stops the viewer finding any real resonance in the works, and denies them any significant connection with the art. Perhaps the personal investment of the artist in her works means that the viewer can never really grasp what the works are supposed to mean. At times you feel like a trespasser, who lacks the understanding required to fully appreciate the force of the works. While the images are beautiful, you feel as if you’re looking through someone’s photo album with out really knowing them, and this stops the exhibition having any lasting impact on its visitors.     

Zarina Bhimji at Whitechapel, at Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery's exhibition of Zarina Bhimji's photography shows the artist's concern with the marks left by human activity, their routes, and the links between places and people. As an examination of channels between cultures, it is fascinating. But the lack of human subjects lends these images an incredible stillness.