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What I learnt about art and activism from Chila Kumari Singh Burman

As the British artist of Indian origin prepares to unveil the Tate Britain’s façade, she talks to STIR about why she does what she does.

by Jones JohnPublished on : Nov 07, 2020

“We face many problems when trying to establish the very existence of Black women’s art, and a strong social and political base from which to develop our study of it. Firstly, we have to struggle to establish our existence, let alone our credibility as autonomous beings, in the art world. Secondly, we can only retain that credibility and survive as artists if we become fully conscious of ourselves, lest we are demoralised or weakened by the social, economic and political constraints which the white-male art establishment imposes and will continue to impose on us.”

These words from her 1986 essay, titled There Have Always Been Great Black Women Artists, which I read in the 2017 anthology Why Are We ‘Artists’?: 100 World Art Manifestoes, was one of my first encounters with the work of Chila Kumari Singh Burman. Having been nurtured to delineate relevant art history as essentially belonging to the political avant-garde, as opposed to the aesthetic, it was easy for me to understand her work as being somehow representative of the experience of being a woman of South Asian origin in the United Kingdom, and that her chosen material and motifs were somehow her way of articulating a position of subalternity. While these assumptions may not have been entirely wrong, with art being but a manifestation of one’s lived experiences, my mistake, as I would realise when speaking to her about her selection for the fourth Tate Britain Winter Commission, was having naively made certain bracketed generalisations about her aesthetic sensibilities based on my understanding of her cultural location, a mistake that might be due to the lingering influence that the ‘white-male art establishment’, as Burman had described the hegemony of the artworld some 30 years ago, still maintains on contemporary thought around the globe. In my own post-coloniality and self-bracketing, I had understood her work as doing for British-Indian visual art, what Salman Rushdie and Daljit Nagra had done for its literature and while this may not be entirely wrong, at least at times, it would be an utter fallacy to comprehend Burman’s work purely along these lines.

Band of Gold (2014) | Tate Britain Winter Commission | Chila Kumari Singh Burman | STIRworld
Band of Gold (2014) Image: Courtesy of DACS/ Artimage, London

About the Tate Commission, for which she is to decorate the façade of the Tate Britain, this year just in time for Diwali, Burman could not tell me much except for that there would be collage-work wrapping the pillar at the building’s entrance and two of them would be adorned by Punjabi Rockers, a work from the early 2000s, which includes various images of women from Bollywood and other popular media from India, and this brought me to pose the question of how her distinct cultural identity began to reveal itself through her artwork, imagining my assessment of her work to have been result of some conscious decision she made way back then.

“Well, you know what? I have no idea,” she responded from across the laptop screen, “I don’t really know how all of it happened. I probably don’t think myself that I have a distinct identity. I just follow my nose. When I come to the studio, I just make something that makes me happy”. This caught me completely off-guard and as I mentally began inspecting the relevance of the questions I had jotted down, I came to the realisation that I had to leave any presumption I might have of her practice if I had to understand it for what it was – a tactile engagement with any medium that the artist finds affinity for – and this would lead me to a second and more important epiphany, that her activism in the 1980s was her asserting the right of her practice to be relevant without having to answer to the kind of socio-cultural interrogation that I had prepared for her, for the artistic practices of people of colour, particularly women, to have legitimacy in the prevalent artworld without having to be politically radical, as was allowed for White artists.

A view of Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s studio | Tate Britain Winter Commission | Chila Kumari Singh Burman | STIRworld
A view of Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s studio Image: Courtesy of the artist

“All of us ‘black’ artists, I use that as a political term of resistance, had just started to leave art school in the mid-80s and we were finding that the artworld was not showing any interest in us and the whole focus was on White artists. To be honest, they didn’t really get their head around some of us, probably even more so with South Asian artists. My parents came on a ship around the same time as Windrush. Not the same ship, it was called Batory, but around the same time, and when they landed there were statements on landlords’ front doors saying, ‘No Blacks, no Asians, no dogs, no Irish’. So, there was obviously, around the late 70s, a lot of racism from the national front and that’s when all the punk music happened. So, I was part of the whole punk scene, because I was just of that age. So, when I went to Leeds Polytechnic, it was all like feminism and punk, not so much stuff around anti-racism. Well, there was anti-racism activism in art school, in the visual art departments as well as rock against racism gigs. But it was more for music, it was not so much in the visual art world. And I have always been interested in music, with reggae music, and my mum and dad would play bhangra at home. That’s like Punjabi folk music and that’s got a lot of politics around it, in its crazy way. A lot of us were in what some of us called the black arts movement. It wasn’t like some of us sat in this room and we had these big discussions. We did have lots of discussions but we didn’t say, ‘It’s got to go this way, it’s got to go that way’. It just, like, flowed. Nobody was exhibiting us so a couple of guys and girls decided to be like curators. We all just thought we have to do our own thing because the White artworld, they wouldn’t take any notice of us.”

All this is not to say that the political does not enter her work, but rather that when it does, it seeps in organically through her interactions with the world, as it does with a number of works from this period such as the Riot series, which is in the Tate collection. In this way, it might be said that her relationship with her ‘subjects’, be they material or imagery, was that of intuitive assimilation rather than emerging our of any conscious preconditioning. This process would be elaborated upon as she spoke about some of her most recognisable motifs.

‘Stereotypes Reinforce Mystery’ (2000)| Tate Britain Winter Commission | Chila Kumari Singh Burman | STIRworld
Stereotypes Reinforce Mystery (2000) Image: Courtesy of DACS/ Artimage, London

“I have done a lot of work around ice cream and the ice cream cone, and that was because my dad was an ice cream man when he came to England. He came in 1952 and then he worked for Dunlop in Liverpool and then he got an ice cream van. So, I used to help in the van all the time in the 70s and 80s. And that is why, probably, the ice cream kind of thing happens”. Burman’s artworks in which she incorporates the image of a girl with a bindi came from her making a visual enquiry into the unnecessarily sexual nature of ice cream advertisements and once she found the right image for this purpose, after searching for material in women’s sex-shops, it began to be recast through a number of pieces. “I just got carried away with it. It’s like a small seed which just grows and grows and grows. It can go into different dimensions”. Similarly, other motifs such as flowers and Bollywood iconography have also emerged from her socio-cultural environs though tracing an exact epistemic genealogy for all of them appears to be a task, even of her, with all the contextual and formal mutations that they have undergone in her hands.

In a rapidly globalising world rife with socio-political ferment, it is easy for people, like myself, to imagine art discourse around different subalternities as necessarily being commentaries centred around cultural identities, if they are not instances of outright dissent. In this context, the histories of artists such as Burman, who is positioned actively within such politics but creates art that needn’t necessarily tickle some sort of revolutionary fervour, is a reminder to the radically poised for the need to preserve a space for free expression, for l’art pour l’art, especially within conversations driven by hopes for a more inclusive future for artists across the cultural spectrum.

The artist sporting a ‘Punjabi Rockers’ face mask, which can be purchased at the Tate Britain’s shop on the unveiling of the façade | Tate Britain Winter Commission | Chila Kumari Singh Burman | STIRworld
The artist sporting a Punjabi Rockers face mask, which can be purchased at the Tate Britain’s shop on the unveiling of the façade Image: Courtesy of the artist

The façade of the Tate Britain is set to be unveiled by November 14, 2020, and will be on display until January 31, 2021. However, dates are subject to change due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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