Out of Blue is Bhimji’s first film, commissioned for Documenta 11 in Kassel in 2002 and subsequently shown as part of the Art Now series at Tate Britain in 2003. It is just under twenty-four and a half minutes long and comprises sequences filmed in Uganda, where the artist was born. The film begins with images of a hilly verdant landscape in the early morning. The stillness of this scene is shattered by a series of bush fires which spring up, blazing a deep orange-red and darkening the sky. The scene shifts to the pock-marked exteriors of low buildings. In a series of slow pans the camera reveals the interior of one of these structures, where a makeshift camp appears to have been abandoned. In military barracks, deserted prison cells bear dark stains that suggest the aftermath of torture. Row of machine guns are lined up against a wall. Other abandoned buildings, some grand and colonial in style, bear the scars of war and neglect. A large puddle in the room of a house reflects light flooding through the windows. Outside, a cemetery stands ill-tended. Weeds grow over crumbling grave markers. The once-proud control tower of Entebbe Airport stands crumbling and empty. The airport buildings are overrun with mosquitoes. The camera lingers for a while on a gleaming cobweb where a large spider slowly flexes its legs. The final sequence is filmed from an airplane as it rises up and away from the lush green landscape. A small group of children can be seen playing. The bleached sky fills the frame.
The film is accompanied by a rich and varied soundtrack that includes the haunting music of Pakistani singer Abida Parveen (born 1954). The visual and aural aspects of the installation blend harmoniously. The overlaid sounds of sobbing, gunshots and the ominous buzzing of mosquitoes that accompany the images of prisons give way to murmuring and laughing voices in the scenes of domestic interiors. Indistinct snatches of radio broadcasts can also be heard.
In 1972, a year after he seized power, President Idi Amin (c.1925-2003) ordered the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda. Ethnic Asian citizens, many of whom had lived in Uganda for several generations, were given three months to leave the country. For two years after Amin’s decree the young Bhimji and her family remained in hiding in the country, taking refuge in a small village before finally fleeing to the UK in 1974. During this time she witnessed the atrocities of Amin’s reign at first hand. Amnesty International has estimated that from 1971 to 1978 between 50,000 and 300,000 Ugandan citizens were killed (quoted in Stout). Bhimji began research for Out of Blue four years before the film was completed. She has written, ‘In the summer of 1998 I visited Uganda for the first time in twenty-four years. I visited many places that suffered badly during the civil war ... I was interested in the traces of war; its unspeakable horror, rites of passage, of re-building’ (Bhimji, ‘Drawing on History’, A-N Magazine for Artists, September 2001, p.5). Many of the sites Bhimji filmed relate directly to her own history; she revisited her family home and the school and mosque she knew as a child.
Until the final images, there are almost no people visible in Out of Blue; the Uganda Bhimji records is deserted. The artist has written that she intends this work ‘to mark what has happened: elimination, extermination and erasure’ (quoted in Stout). The rich colour and careful composition of the film’s images and poetic solemnity of its soundtrack, however, are startling in their beauty. While the work invites the viewer to confront the personal and collective memory of brutality, Bhimji’s focus on the natural world’s tenacious ability to sustain growth suggests a similar potential for regeneration and healing in the socio-political realm.
Out of Blue was recorded on 16mm film and transferred to single channel DVD. The installation calls for a large-scale projection in a darkened, self-contained space with dark grey walls, ceiling and carpet. The work was produced in an edition of four plus two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is fourth in the edition.
Katharine Stout, Art Now: Zarina Bhimji, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London, 2003, reproduced in colour.
Deepali Dewan, ‘Tender Metaphor: the art of Zarina Bhimji’, in Fault Lines: Contemporary African Art and Shifting Landscapes, London, 2003, pp.131-7.
Okwui Enwezor, et.al., Documenta11_Platform5, exhibition catalogue, Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 2002.