Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a poet mother and a painter father who throughout his formative years strongly encouraged their second son to pursue his art. While he was still a young child, his parents relocated to Valhalla, New York. Pousette-Dart briefly attended nearby Bard College before moving to New York City to devote himself full time to painting and sculpture.

White Gothic No 5 (1961) oil on canvas by Richard Pousette-Dart

Along with artists Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, Pousette-Dart became a founder of the New York School, which thrived during the immediate postwar decade. Like its other members, Pousette-Dart turned away from realism, creating abstract, spontaneous-seeming compositions that incorporated Freudian and Jungian symbolism and elements of European modernism. In the 1950s the artist produced a series of white paintings with penciled lines in which the bird motif of his small brass sculptures from the 1930s reappeared. Abandoning the all-white approach in the late fifties, Pousette-Dart began to build up thick, stucco-like surfaces of expressive color. His work grew in scale in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the late seventies his simplified, pointillist compositions were suggesting exploding stars, planets, and the depths of infinite space.

Throughout his career, Pousette-Dart also taught painting at a number of New York institutions, including the New School for Social Research, the School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the Art Students League. In 1981 he received the first annual “Distinguished Lifetime in Art” award from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. The following year Pousette-Dart was chosen by the International Committee of the Venice Biennale to exhibit in the main pavilion.

Never mind the Pollocks

She lived a life of sex, privilege and money – but all she wanted was credibility within the male-dominated art world. Stuart Jeffries on Peggy Guggenheim, millionaire collector

Peggy Guggenheim had an ugly nose. In 1920, she asked a Cincinnati surgeon to make it like the one she had read about in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, “tip-tilted like the petal of a flower”. But he botched the painful operation and, then, after stitching her up as best he could, still charged her $1,000. Guggenheim left town with one of her least welcome inheritances intact – the family potato nose.

Jackson Pollock reportedly said that you would have to put a towel over Peggy Guggenheim’s head to have sex with her, which is a particularly vile thing to say given that she was his most ardent and committed patron. But he was one of the few heterosexual acquaintances with whom she didn’t have an affair. Despite the nose, or maybe even because of it, Peggy Guggenheim had a lurid sex life that she, her contemporaries and those who have written about her since, enjoyed embroidering. When asked by an interviewer how many husbands she had, Guggenheim replied: “Do you mean mine, or other people’s?”

Two new biographies – by Anton Gill and Laucrence Tacou-Rumney – suggest that it was our old friend, low self-esteem, that prompted this sexual voracity. The nose, the early death of her father (in 1912, copper-mining heir Ben Guggenheim bravely stepped off the sinking Titanic into the night waves), the difficulties of being a Jew in America, the leap over the ghetto walls and the headlong rush of a moneyed Yank to be part of European bohemia, all played their part. “Peggy’s most successful relationships were with animals and works of art,” writes Gill. He reports she had a large collection of Lhasa Apsos dogs whom she loved unconditionally and they, let’s hope, returned the compliment.

So the myth that attaches to many women art collectors, from Catherine the Great onwards, crystallises: Guggenheim collected men like she collected art, only faster. Which is saying something because, in 1940 when Guggenheim was in Paris and the Nazis bearing down on the city, she was buying a picture a day. No wonder the British edition of Guggenheim’s memoirs was called Confessions of an Art Addict. But, unlike the art, she didn’t hold on to her men. When she seduced a great surrealist painter, one of her former conquests remarked: “Max Ernst is now said to be Peggy Guggenheim’s consort no 3,812.” The young Samuel Beckett, improbably, was another.

What was in it for her lovers? Guggenheim herself provided the most devastating assessment when she wrote about her first marriage to an anti-semitic brute called Laurence Vail. She had, she claimed, no beauty, no artistic talent, all she could offer him was money. And live off his wife’s money he did, in between bouts of beating her up, walking on her prostrate body and rubbing jam into her hair.

What sort of money did Guggenheim have at her disposal? Rather less than the Empress of all the Russias. At 21, she inherited $450,000 from her father’s estate. This capital, in the first few years, yielded $22,500 a year, an income that rose in later decades. That, plus the $500,000 inheritance she received on her mother’s death in 1937, enabled her to put together an extraordinary collection before Paris fell to the Germans. It consisted of several Klees, a Gris, a Léger, a Kandinsky, a Braque, as well as paintings by Miró, De Chirico and Magritte.

None the less, the Louvre thought it worthless and refused to store it during the war. But then what we now think of as the stewards of the great collections were hostile to the modern art that Guggenheim assiduously championed. For example, James Bolivar Manson, then director of the Tate Gallery in London, dismissed some modernist sculptures that she wanted to be shown in London, saying that they were “not-art”. As a result of his intervention, British customs would not let them into the country. Guggenheim later, along with Sir Herbert Read, tried and failed to set up a modern art museum in London, proof, if proof were needed, that Tate Modern has been an absurdly long time coming.

Guggenheim fled wartime France for New York, where between 1942 and 1947 she ran Art of this Century, a gallery-cum-museum in which her European collection was displayed alongside temporary shows devoted to American artists whose work she commissioned and collected. There is hardly a significant American artist of the mid-20th century who didn’t receive her patronage.

But what is the importance of Guggenheim as a collector? To Americans in particular, a great deal. American curator and art writer Gail Stavitsky argues: “Unlike Europe, America had neither royalty nor aristocracy, papacy nor civic organisations to develop collections that would eventually form the basis of publicly administered, government-funded museums.”

Yes, Peggy Guggenheim’s collection may be housed now in a Venetian palazzo, and admittedly the most important Guggenheim collection in the US is now that of her uncle Solomon, mainly housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in New York. But Peggy Guggenheim is important to American art lovers: she generously donated to public museums all over the US and distributed 20 paintings by Jackson Pollock.

What is distinctive about women collectors? “Almost without exception, the significant women in this typically overwhelmingly masculine field have been rich – some very rich – and they belonged to the upper classes,” write Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey in their book Great Women Collectors. “They have had money; and they have had time.”

They cite among others Catherine the Great, a self-confessed glutton, whose sexual voracity, though exaggerated, and artistic acquisitiveness may have made her, to some, resemble Guggenheim with a deeper purse.

Collection after collection, made by men of the leading families and politicians of Europe, fell to her imperial might. She bought Sir Robert Walpole’s magnificent collection, for example, in 1779 when his heirs were left in debt after he built Houghton Hall in Norfolk. She was predatory and aggressive, leading Gere and Vaizey to suggest she collected like a man.

But what, if anything, is it to collect like a woman? From the Renaissance onwards, women’s collections were often by-products of homemaking. “These impulses, so distinct from men’s collecting instincts, produced the types of collection that, broadly speaking could be categorised as feminine,” write Gere and Vaizey. Porcelain, embroidery, dress and fans were all widely collected by women, but not men. Couturier Coco Chanel amassed a collection of 18th century French furniture, cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein collected African and Victorian glass.

But women historically haven’t just collected applied art; Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour may have intervened to ensure the future security of the Sèvres porcelain factory and thus promoted French decorative art, but she was also a great collector of fine art – her name is closely linked with painter François Boucher’s. He painted her portraits regularly and she commissioned or bought much of his work. Nellie Jacquemart and Josephine Bowes were both artists who worked with their husbands to build up two great collections of art (the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris and the Bowes museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham) but in each case it’s hard to see which works were acquired by the feminine and which by the masculine half of the partnership.

Equally, there’s nothing distinctively feminine about Guggenheim’s collection. Ah, sceptics might well say, there’s a reason for that – her reliance on men of taste to advise her. The suggestion is that Guggenheim was a galumphing klutz who had a showy life but little aesthetic sensibility. Guggenheim had a bad nose – could it be that she had an even worse eye? Anton Gill’s biography contends that, “the jury remains out” on that. When Guggenheim’s collection went on display at the first post-war Venice Biennale, one of the visitors was Bernard Berenson, the great historian of Renaissance art, whose writings had been her guide when she first visited Europe. Guggenheim ran up to him and said: “Oh this is the greatest moment of my life Mr Berenson – you were the first person to teach me about painting.” To which Berenson, looking dismissively around the collection, replied: “My dear, what a tragedy I wasn’t the last.”

Berenson’s jibe, at least, wasn’t so much sexist as the remark of a man out of temper with modern art. Guggenheim was astute enough to cultivate tasteful men who were not. The French artist Marcel Duchamp became her unpaid modern art tutor and astute adviser. If not a great judge of art, then Guggenheim was clearly savvy, sensitive and humble enough to know who was. And that is, surely, a kind of artistic sensitivity.

What’s more, Guggenheim was a great collector in the sense that Gere and Vaizey define. “Collecting must, in our view, significantly alter the repute of the objects collected, not only by adding to knowledge and expanding appreciation, but perhaps even more by conferring status: the collector can make the unfashionable or ignored more central to the culture of the day.”

This is what Guggenheim did. The extent of her commissioning went beyond just what is housed in the Guggenheim in Venice. She was a woman whose commission, certainly after her return to New York, could transform the reputation of an artist. Indeed, the promise of that prestige may have been an aphrodisiac for some of her artist lovers. Without her, Pollock and other abstract expressionists might well not have got art-world status conferred on them so readily.

That said, it must have been difficult sometimes for Guggenheim to be such an indefatigable supporter of these men (and it was work by male artists that she overwhelmingly collected). One day Pollock, Duchamp and Guggenheim had a row over a canvas she had commissioned for the foyer of her East Side townhouse in New York. At 20ft wide, it proved too big for the allotted space. Duchamp proposed cutting eight inches off one end. Pollock disappeared to get drunk, wandering back later into a party at Guggenheim’s apartment and peeing into her fire.

Art world sexism followed Guggenheim wherever she trod. One day in 1940 she walked into Picasso’s Paris atelier, seeking to buy a picture. The great master ignored her for several minutes, before dismissing her with: “Madame, the lingerie department is on the second floor.”

Sex, money and rude artists – was there any more to Guggenheim’s life? Yes. A determination to commit herself to what she described as “serving the future instead of recording the past”, something which she best did with a collection of 300 works of art housed in the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. But what is particularly distinctive about her collection is the responsibility she felt for the art and the artists she collected.

That, at least, is something that it is rather hard to imagine male collectors doing.
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

Shozo Shimamoto

Szozo Shimamoto, was born in Osaka, Japan in 1928, he is an authoratative member of the Gutai Group, which was formed in 1954 in the Kansai region.  Other important figures included in the group were the likes of Yoshihara Jiro, Kanayama Akira, Murakami Saburo and Shiraga Kazuo.  The activities of the group helped evolve western art for sixty years.

In 1957 the Gutai Group presented the “Gutai Stage Exhibition”, which for the first time in art history Shimamoto put together a stage like exhibition where he used a gun to fire colours.  Shimamoto also combined these activities with the audio of John Cage and the result were given to the Pompidou centre in Paris and the Museum of the City of Ashiya.  In 1993 it appeared in the Biennial in Venice witht the Gutai Group.

More of Shimamoto’s work can be viewed at The Tate Modern alongside Jackson Pollock and Lucia Fontana.

William Baziotes – Abstract Expressionist

William Baziotes, was born in Pittsburgh June 11th, 1912.  His parents were Greek.  From 1931 to 1933 he worked at Case Glass company in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was painting glass and running general errands.  He attended evening sketch classes and it was here that he met his lifelong friend Byron Vazakas, who was a poet.  Vazakas introduced Baziotes to the Symbolist poets and to Charles Baudelaire.  It was in 1931 that Baziotes saw the Henri Matisse exhibition at MoMA in New York and decided to move to New York to study painting. 


In 1936 Baziotes exhibited for the first time in a group showing at the Municipal Art gallery in New York and gained employment for the WPA as an art teacher at the Queens Museum. He met the Surrealist émigrés in New York in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and by 1940 knew Jimmy Ernst, Matta, and Gordon Onslow-Ford. He began to experiment with Surrealist automatism at this time. In 1941, Matta introduced Baziotes to Robert Motherwell, with whom he formed a close friendship. André Masson invited Baziotes to participate with Motherwell, David Hare, and others in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism at the Whitelaw Reid Mansion in New York. In 1943, he took part in two group shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, New York, where his first solo exhibition was held the following year. With Hare, Motherwell, and Mark Rothko, Baziotes founded the Subjects of the Artist school in New York in 1948. Over the next decade, Baziotes held a number of teaching positions in New York: at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and at New York University from 1949 to 1952; at the People’s Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art, from 1950 to 1952; and at Hunter College from 1952 to 1962. Baziotes died in New York on June 6, 1963. A memorial exhibition of his work was presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1965.

“Larry Gagosian has always expanded in a recession”

Why is the most successful contemporary art dealer in the world opening a branch in Rome this month?

The invitation for the opening of the new gallery in Rome

The invitation for the opening of the new gallery in Rome

“Rome is a sleeping giant,” says Larry Gagosian, and on 15 December the art world’s most successful contemporary art dealer will attempt to bring it to life by opening a new gallery in the heart of city. The 700 square-metre space is in an ornate 1920s palazzo just round the corner from the Spanish steps. Its elaborate exterior houses a high-tech minimalist exhibition space designed by London architect Adam Caruso with the Roman Firouz Galdo. The inaugural exhibition is of paintings and sculptures by Cy Twombly, and the artist, who has a studio in the city, is rumoured to be cutting the opening ribbon (Gagosian Gallery in New York is also hosting a Cy Twombly show, until 22 December).

The new venture seems far from a guaranteed money-earner. In Italy, the market for contemporary art has traditionally been focused in Milan and Turin, where most of the country’s biggest collectors are based. But then, Gagosian, 62, is a redoubtable trendsetter, famous for moving in where others hang back. He reopened his Los Angeles gallery in the early 90s recession and saw the city’s art market boom. “Larry Gagosian has always expanded in a recession, and if this one really kicks in, he’s sure to be opening yet more new spaces, in Moscow, India or China,” is the opinion of one ex-associate.

His reasons for adding a Roman gallery to his spaces in Los Angeles, New York, and London is partly that Twombly keeps a studio there. Another factor is his long-standing interest in Arte Povera, the Italian art movement of the 1960s. To acquire work by these artists, he needs an Italian base, and why not Rome, home to some of the world’s most sublime art and far more glamorous and cosmopolitan than the industrial cities of the north?

Pepi Marchetti, a former executive associate in the office of Guggenheim Foundation chief executive Thomas Krens, is the 35-year old Italian who will direct the new Roman gallery. She says: “Gagosian is extremely interested in established Italian artists of the post-war era and the market for their work is growing very strongly.”

In the last few years, works by the likes of Alighiero e Boetti, Mario Merz and Lucio Fontana have achieved higher and higher prices at auction in London and New York, but in Italy they can still be bought for much less. Gagosian has helped foster their market value by staging monographic exhibitions: Alighiero e Boetti (New York, 2001); Pino Pascali (New York, 2006); Mario Merz (London, 2006), as well as Lucio Fontana this year at his Britannia Street Gallery in London.

The 2001 Boetti show in particular was a triumph, devised in collaboration with the artist’s heirs and Germano Celant, the Italian critic who coined the term “Arte Povera”. It helped relaunch the artist on the international scene as one of the most conceptual exponents of the genre.

Gagosian wanted to inaugurate the Roman gallery with a Boetti show, but the Turin artist’s widow Caterina Raganelli, president of the Fondazione Alighiero e Boetti, and other heirs asked to postpone it until after the major exhibition of the artist’s work to be held at MADRE (Museo de Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina) in Naples in 2009, curated by the Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva.

Gagosian has also worked his market magic on another Arte Povera artist, Pino Pascali. His New York show last year gave centre stage to a life-size fake cannon by the artist made in 1965 out of wood and scrap (Cannone Semovente). Gagosian paid £1.57m ($2.6m) for it at auction in 2003. Pascali was then little known outside Italy, and critics believed Christie’s estimate of £500,000—four times more than any Pascali had fetched at auction before—was far too high. Gagosian secured the piece in a bidding war, and it was shown alongside works from the personal collection of Fabio Sargentini, an Italian dealer who made art history in the 60s and 70s with his highly experimental gallery in Rome, and who was very important to Pascali’s career.

Perhaps there is a hint here. Could Gagosian’s new gallery be the start of a big new hunt by him through the collections and drawing rooms of Italy?

Gagosian has already established a good network in the city. MACRO, Rome’s museum of contemporary art, has had recent shows devoted to two of his artists, the British artist Jenny Saville and the Egyptian Ghada Amer. In 2005, Gagosian opened a temporary satellite gallery in the Palazzo Borghese that also doubled as the headquarters for work then being done on a new catalogue raisonné of Cy Twombly’s work.

In 2006, in the Villa Borghese’s Orangery, a new not-for-profit gallery opened showing works donated to the city of Rome by Carlo Bilotti, an Italo-American businessman, close to Gagosian, who died later that year. Bilotti also exhibited studies commissioned from several of Gagosian’s artists: Damien Hirst, Jenny Saville, David Salle. In October, there followed an exhibition, organised with the support of Gagosian, who controls the De Kooning estate, of 16 canvases by De Kooning from 1981 to 1987.

Of course, Gagosian is not the only contemporary art presence in Rome. Italian gallerists such as Alessandra Bonomo, Stefania Miscetti, and Pio Monti, have long been working with international artists including Richard Long and Marina Abramovic. Lorcan O’Neill, previously director of the now defunct Anthony d’Offay gallery in London, opened his gallery in the city in 2003, showing work by artists including Tracey Emin, Richard Long, Kiki Smith, and Francesco Clemente. Paolo Bonzano, who died earlier this year, closed his gallery in Milan and decided to move to Rome in 2004 because “even though the market is sleepier here, it is much more glamorous and international”.

Next year, there will be a new art fair in the city, organised by Roberto Casiraghi, former director of the Artissima fair in Turin. It is expected to be the most international fair for
contemporary art yet held in Italy and MAXXI, the highly anticipated National Museum
of 21st-century art should open in 2009 in a building designed by Iraqi, London-based architect Zaha Hadid.

Jim Rosenquist

Born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1933, He now lives and works in Aripeka, Florida, and New York City Jim Rosenquist had an itinerant childhood. An only child, he moved with his family frequently throughout the Midwest. His parents shared with him their interest in airplanes and things mechanical. In junior high school Rosenquist took art classes, and he won a scholarship to attend Saturday classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. After high school he enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s art program, studying with Cameron Booth. During the summer he worked for a contractor in Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, painting signs and bulk storage tanks.

“President Elect” (1960-61)

In 1954 Rosenquist painted his first billboard for General Outdoor Advertising in Minneapolis. A year later, on scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, Rosenquist studied with Edwin Dickinson, Will Barnet, Morris Kantor, George Grosz, and Vaclav Vytacil. In 1957 Rosenquist joined the sign painters union and in 1958 went to work for Art Kraft Strauss Company painting billboards. He also worked on window displays for Bonwit Teller and Tiffany & Company.

He married the textile designer Mary Lou Adams. During the election he produced the picture President Elect in which John F. Kennedy’s face is combined in a kind of collage with sex and automobile imagery. His first one-man exhibition in the Green Gallery, in 1962, was sold out. In 1963 he worked on several sculptures, had a number of exhibitions at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, showed his work at the Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, and taught at Yale University. In 1965 he began to work with lithographs.

In the same year he made the 26 meter-wide picture F-111, which was shown at the Jewish Museum, New York, at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and in other European cities. It is one of his most important works. The spatial organization of the composition into layers suggests the interrelationship of contemporary historical symbols and signs of affluence and military hardware, a vision of American culture expressing the proximity of euphoria and catastrophe. In 1967 he moved to East Hampton.

Untitled 2000

In 1968 he was given his first retrospective by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. In 1969 he turned his attention to experimenting with film techniques. In 1970 he went to Cologne for the opening of his exhibition at the Galerie Rolf Ricke. During the public protest against the Vietnam War he was briefly detained in Washington. During the same year he had comprehensive retrospectives at the Wallraf-Richards Museum, Cologne, and the Whitney Museum, New York.

In 1974 and 1975, he lobbied the U.S. Senate on the legal rights of artists. He became separated from his wife and designed his own house with an open-air studio at Indian Bay, Aripeka, Florida. In 1978 F-111 was exhibited in the International Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In his work of the late seventies and eighties, e.g. 4 “New Clear Women,” images of women are confronted with machine aesthetics, usually in large oblong compositions. The themes of these dynamic compositions also include fire, progress and war machinery which he shows in rotating pictorial narratives. Between 1985 and 1987 Rosenquist’s entire development as an artist was shown in a comprehensive retrospective at six American museums.

The Stars and Stripes at the Speed of Light

By 1960 Rosenquist had set aside enough of his commercial earnings to allow him to spend a year painting in his studio. He moved to Coentles Slip, where he shared a loft with Charles Hinman.  Rosenquist had tentatively explored the use of commercial methods and materials in his studio work of the late 1950s, but after his move to the Slip, he left behind both the abstract expressionist and figurative modes he had employed in his early work.  He developed the montage like arrangement of deliberately fragmented images from popular culture inconsistently scaled and enigmatically juxtaposed; that characterized the monumental paintings of his mature style.

Rosenquist had his first one-man exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York in 1962, and every painting was sold. In 1963 he completed a mural for the New York World’s Fair, and Art in, America selected him as “Young Talent Painter” of the year. Two years later the artist finished painting the monumental, highly publicized F- I I 1, which toured Europe during the 1960s and has been considered an important expression of the anti Vietnam War movement. During the 1970s he became active in issues of artists’ rights legislation. In 1976 Rosenquist built his house and studio in Aripeka, Florida.

Since the early 1960s Rosenquist has worked extensively at numerous printmaking workshops in addition to Graphic studio, including Aeropress, Gemini G.E.L., Petersburg Press, Styria Studios, Tyler Graphics, Ltd., and Universal Limited Art Editions. Among Rosenquist’s honors is the World Print Award, which he received in 1983 from the World Print Council at the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art.


In 2003 the Solomon R. Guggenbeim Museum in New York had a retrospective of Rosenquist works starting in 1950. In 2004 the exhibition goes to Spain’s Guggeheim Bilbao.

As art dealer Richard Feigen says, “James Rosenquist may be the world’s most important living artist.”

Zarina Bhimji

Born in 1963 in Mbarara, Uganda, Zarina Bhimji now lives and works in London and Berlin.

Immediately after receiving a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of London in 1987, she began exhibiting her work in group exhibitions. Following post-graduate work she became an Artist in Residence at Darwin College in Cambridge. In 1996, her work was part of the “In/Sight” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

One of her latest works, “Out of Blue,” was commissioned and produced by Documenta 11, held in Cologne, Germany in 2002.Bhimji returned to Uganda to film the architecture, airports, and graveyards as well as the military barracks, police cells, and prisons of Amin’s reign of terror. In her work Zarina Bhimji explores the politics and poetics of power and history through images rich in colour, texture and content.

Here we will review her new movie

Entebbe Airport (still from Out of Blue) 2001

Zarina Bhimji’s new film on show at Tate Britain draws on her childhood memories. The writer and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who shares the artist’s Ugandan Asian origins, offers her own vivid reaction to their common experience

Zarina Bhimji was once invited to show her startlingly challenging art at a deeply conservative Islamic centre, and then threatened to withdraw unless she was allowed to include commentaries on the naked human body, male and female. This educative confrontation took place at the beautiful building opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum where the Ismaili mosque is used by worshippers each evening and dawn.

The Earth was coming off its hinges, 1999-2001

Bhimji won and the centre gained something immensely important, letting innovation and rebellion into the hallowed halls, with their ancestral geometric patterns and fountains paying eternal homage to the past. The walls did not crumble; faith was not polluted, and profoundly held values were nourished by being engaged with in the most audacious way.

Some Muslim communities are waking up to the fact that art, writing, science, new ideas and intellectual debate once used to define Islam in the world. When Europe was locked in superstition and a rejection of threatening ideas, Muslim scholars were devouring the work of Greek philosophers and creating vital, inquisitive cultures. In the past 50 years a dark age seems to have descended on the Islamic world, making too many Muslims disenchanted, suspicious and hopelessly nostalgic. Optimists detect a new renaissance slowly unfolding and Bhimji (who may or may not be a practising Muslim) is, in my view, partly located in this re-awakening.

She is bold, daring, demanding. If she turns to Islamic history, it is with the vengeance of an activist. In the 1990s her Cleaning the Garden project featured the gardens and courtyards of the Alhambra, but this was to repudiate present-day European cultural storytellers who are hell-bent on excising the role and long presence of Islam from their land, and to remind post-Rushdie Muslims of what they once were.

Work in Progress, 2001

Yet this dissident and sharp observer has given us, in Out of Blue, a film which is deteminedly conservative and questionably partial. This is one of Bhimji’s most personal expressions to date. As one of those forcibly dispossessed by Idi Amin exactly 30 years ago, she explores the unresolved pain and unanswered questions which still haunt many Ugandan Asians. Their lives before the expulsions hover restlessly, as they try to make sense of explanations which are only half true. This latest offering is a moving display of these half truths; effective yes, but not convincing in the end for those of us who know what happened and why.

Forced exile is a terrible thing. It is also one of the most powerful liberators of creativity. The dislocation sets free a range of dramas and stories without predictable ends – only questions, questions, and more questions. It lightens the burden of obligation to nationality and homeland while instilling a futile longing for both. It bestows on the lucky victims a profundity which you cannot learn anywhere. This intensity pulls you into Out of Blue, as the sounds circulate and tangle and as images emerge from the high, confident, affluent walls of Tate Britain. (Many of the shots are of walls of pain – of old decayed houses, of prisons with dried blood stuck in rivulets under the high bars, of the near-derelict airport at Entebbe.) Viewers are compelled to enter the inner rooms, the artist’s unquiet sensibility and the impossibility of closure.

Out of Blue is a short tale of an imploded paradise (the conventional view taken by Asians of Uganda), and begins with the landscape which is still fresh for those of us who were driven from it. As the camera strokes its way softly across the beauty, three decades of distance vanish. In my autobiography No Place Like Home (incidentally also the title of a 1997 exhibition of Bhimji’s in Minneapolis), I wrote: ‘Uganda, with its moist and raging green everywhere, prodigious, boisterous flowers, trees and grasses and beautiful red earth. Utterly untamed.’ Bhimji’s initial, loving images capture this absolutely but inject a fragility which wasn’t there before, before the bloody history which saw a million black Ugandans slaughtered by its first two presidents between them.


Then comes a small fire in the grass. It gets larger; a cacophony of sounds invades the birdsong; ruthless Amin and his cronies threatening and ordering, sighs of bewilderment and sung recitals of pleading prayers from Asian victims and the greater, more gruesome pain of others going through a greater horror, those who were left behind to die or be tortured. The soundtrack kicks you in the stomach, raising panic without a name. And although it is a clich, it works – the sun gets blighted by the thick black smoke which rises from the burnt terrain and charred hopes.

Bhimji is drawn to decayed buildings which speak eloquently. There are shots of rotting mansions once occupied by rich Asians (many of whom didn’t care enough that black Ugandans were left at the bottom of the economic pile, and did not address their own racisms). More moving are the lingering shots of modest little homes with tin roofs where ordinary Asians lived, spaces now freely occupied by spoilt chickens. There are mysterious dormitories with straw mats, precious plastic bags and cups and rows of guns. Are these barracks? Do we feel threatened or reassured that, without their guns, soldiers are pathetic and poor too?

Out of Blue 2002 (still) Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

Still from Out of Blue 2002. Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

The cells are also ambiguous. Black Africans occupy too slight a place in this work, yet they were the ones imprisoned and killed. Is this homage to them or is there some fiction to give a more tragic and cruel edge to our story? Hardly a dozen Asians ever died at the hands of the army in Uganda. But as a symbol of repression the shots scraping around the cell recreate the terror we all felt before we left. Perhaps this is the point. I went to Robben Island in Cape Town this year and visited the cells where Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and other ANC prisoners were held. In South Africa, blacks and Asians fought together against injustice. In Uganda we did not. But Robben Island is a tourist trap now, and the testimonies soaked into the walls and hard floors have been silenced by too much talk from guides and politicians. In Out of Blue the silent screams of the imprisoned are left intact, and the integrity is staggering.

still from Out of Blue   still from Out of Blue

still from Out of Blue

Stills from Out of Blue, Writer/Director Zarina Bhimji

The sense of loss is evocative and everywhere – you can’t help but weep to see the dying graves of Asians left behind; you can’t carry your gravestones with you. Nobody to visit, to tend to these ancestors, our past. Here in Britain, our adopted country, the graves are cold, and our elders wor ry about this as they reach the end of their lives. Out of Blue animates memory, pain and loss beautifully, but there is much wallowing. We need the critical scalpel which Bhimji uses in her other work, more challenges to assumptions and some indication that we Asians were not perfect or indispensable, the country that we have left behind is not doomed forever. We may never forget Uganda but our lives are now rooted in the United Kingdom and indomitable black Ugandans are making their paradise bloom again. We no longer have claims on each other, and that is a new freedom.