In an interview with the artist realised in spring 2021, just after the closing of “Remembering a Brave New World”, Burman’s installation at Tate Britain, the Liverpool born artist, whose Hindu-Punjabi family settled in Britain in the 1950’s, told us about her celebration of Asian feminine identity with an iconography drawn from oriental divinities, pop culture and her life and childhood memories.
With the attitude of a fighter, that has earned her the nickname of ‘martial artist’*, Chila Burman since the mid-1980’s has engaged with gender politics and the stereotyping of Asian femininity via printmaking, painting, installation, photography, video and film. Recognised as a seminal figure in the Black British Art movement, in 2018 Burman received an honorary doctorate from University of the Arts London and in 2020 was selected into the Art Workers Guild.
How did decolonizing a symbol of the art establishment such as Tate Britain feel?
Chila Kumari Burman: It was loads of fun! Honestly, I didn’t imagine it was going to be such a success. The Director of Tate Britain invited me in March 2020 and asked me to transform the whole neoclassical facade and then basically let me loose, I could do whatever I wanted on it.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
Chila Kumari Burman: Nothing was challenging, really, except perhaps the scale of the building, having to work in three dimensions: when I found myself in front of Tate’s facade, I thought: this is ginormous!
How did the installation develop?
Chila Kumari Burman: I had always wanted to work with neon, but I thought that neon lights were made of glass! In fact, talking to a manufacturer in London, I found out that neon is made of silicon and pliable in any form. I went crazy! The first step was to make drawings on vinyl of what I wanted to put into the work, pinning them on an architectural drawing that Tate had given me, to see how it all worked out.
During the exhibition, the drawings were displayed on a side of my Tuk-Tuk inside Tate. I also used a three-dimensional model of the Tate that a friend had gifted me to get a sense of the building’s three-dimensionality, and I also did some computer renderings. I showed these studies first to Tate directors, who were enthusiastic about it. When it all got approved by Westminster Council, I started filling my drawings with lots of different colored crayons, fluorescent pens, brush pens and paint sticks.
Can you tell me about the imagery that appears in the installation?
Chila Kumari Burman: When Tate told me, they wanted to open the exhibition on November 14th, I said that the date coincided with Diwali, the festival of lights [one of the major festivals celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, celebrating new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness N.d.A.]
And it also coincided with the pandemic’s peak that happened only a few weeks after I had shown Tate a first plan. It was all just a coincidence, but then I thought to feature in my installation Lakshmibai, the Diwali goddess of good fortune, and god Ganesh, known all over the world, that is supposed to protect us.
But mostly I wanted to have female imagery: Kali, goddess of creation and destruction, featured as Britannia on top of the Tate, with the phrase “I’m a mess”. During the pandemic, everyone was waking up feeling like a mess. But I also meant that Britannia, and everything she may represent, was in a mess.
Then there’s the Rani of Jhansi, a child-bride queen, a remarkable woman with an important role during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 in resistance to British colonial rule, who put struggle before her marriage. They turned her story into a fiction called Jhansi Ki Rani, and while I was preparing the work for Tate, I was watching it on Netflix, and that got me really fired up!
The words love shine light refer to the need to see light at the end of the tunnel, and aim dream, truth, because we should keep on dreaming and aiming in truth’s direction. Remembering a Brave New World, quoted from Aldous Huxley’s novel, points to the need to remember, even what’s happening today. We should be brave as we are entering a new word.
I work a lot with floral decoration: everybody needs flowers in their life. I printed some material I had in the studio on vinyl sheets, and wrapped them around the pillars.
Then there was the ice-cream van and the tiger, inspired by my dad, who used to own an ice-cream van with a big tiger on top. A neon was inspired to an old photograph in which I’m doing a Martial Arts move, a kick and a jump. I was a brown belt back in the eighties and nineties. I wanted to teach Asian women self-defense, as their parents would not allow them to be taught martial arts by men in gyms or youth clubs. And the girl dancer with a rocket in her hand, is a character from my film ‘Dada and the Punjabi Princess’ (2017).
How did art and emancipation come together in your life in the first place?
Chila Kumari Burman: People stereotype Asian women as being mild and quiet, but my mother was the opposite, she was quite a character in the family and she challenged my father a lot. I suppose she set an example. My parents would have liked me to have an arranged marriage, but I definitely knew that I didn’t want it, and when my mum complained I told her that, in fact, she had made me into the person I am. She thought I was crazy!
When in Leeds during my final degree at art school in 1975/76, I set up the first Asian women’s refuge. I was reading many feminist texts and joining women’s groups. It wasn’t really intentional at first, I just thought it was good to go to places where women gathered and talked about women’s issues. In Leeds, it was a really scary time for women. I had to be very vigilant, because the murderer Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire ripper, was around at that time.
When I moved to London in 1981, I joined a women’s collective. We produced Mukti, a magazine for South East Asian women that dealt with international women’s issues, published in six Asian languages. I used to do a lot of illustration for the magazine; it was cool.
Your first large etchings, that are now part of the Tate collection, took inspiration from the anti-racist and unemployment Riots in London the early 1980’s. Can you tell me about these works briefly?
Chila Kumari Burman: While attending Slade School, in 1981/2, I was mainly doing etching and I made a series (The Riot Series, now in the Tate collection, N.d.A) in response to social unrest and police violence during the riots in the UK. Part of this series, Militant Women Struggles of our Sisters (1982), addressed women’s international issues, and portrayed female road builders in India, executed female prisoners in England and women in South Africa facing the Pass Law in Apartheid [a measure to enforce racial segregation N.d.A].
What did it feel like like being Asian woman artist working in London at the beginning of the 1980’s, after Slade school? Was it difficult to make a career as an artist then?
Chila Kumari Burman: It was a bit. I didn’t want to be an academic, and anyway, though I was qualified to teach at University, it was very difficult to get a job. But because of the GLC days, the Greater London Council days, I took part in the many events that were happening all around London. [during GLC days 1979-1981, Labour Party politician Ken Livingstone was leader of the Greater London Council, initiating a policy in municipal socialism that, among other things, sought to stitch together a constituency of London’s minorities and give impulse to socially oriented arts projects. Margaret Thatcher terminated GLS in 1986 N.d.A.].
I was involved in the Southall Asian and Afro-Caribbean art collective, which was connected to Southall Black Sisters [a not-for-profit, all-Asian secular and inclusive organization for women’s human rights and against gender-related violence, N.d.A.].
Thanks to Ken Livingstone’s GLC days, and to Parminder Vir, Head of the Race Equality Unit for Arts and Recreation at GLC, I could create my job, setting up workshops in youth clubs schools and community centers, working with Asian women and in projects for children.
Then I got a studio to keep my practice up. It was difficult to find an etching press, and also for this reason I started working with self-representation.
You have often used self-portraiture to challenge female stereotyping. Can you tell me about it?
Chila Kumari Burman: in 1992, I was invited to take part in an exhibition of self-portraiture at Arnolfini – Bristol’s International Centre for Contemporary Arts. I exhibited a work called 28 Positions in 34 Years. I photocopied a series of photographic self-portraits in different poses on sheets of paper. It wasn’t a digital world yet. Then I hand-painted them in bright colors with pens, crayons and gouaches to create a grid of twenty-eight portraits. Now I mostly do digital self-portraits.
I read that music is important to you. What role has it played in your work?
Chila Kumari Burman: music is very important to me, I have an extensive collection of women reggae artists, Jazz music, Bollywood, and Indian female Folk Punjabi singers. When I was a teenager, I used to draw all the time in my room listening to music; I wasn’t allowed to go out in the evenings and have a boyfriend at all, but after all it was better this way. Maybe I wouldn’t be who I am otherwise!
What do you think is most needed from feminist approaches today?
Chila Kumari Burman: The struggle is not over; in twenty years, some things have changed but many haven’t. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards. Especially during this pandemic, lots of women had to struggle at home taking on a lot more domestic stuff than their husbands I think, and we’ve seen a rise in domestic violence.
I think that, mostly, the problem is social inequality, especially for families in poorer parts of England, where, as in the entire world over, some factories are still open and people cannot self-isolate if they have Covid, because they live in small council flats. When the Chancellor recently announced the budget, he didn’t even mention social care; it doesn’t seem to be in the Government’s agenda.
Do you think that drawing distinctions between Asian feminism and Western feminism, for example, is still necessary or useful?
Chila Kumari Burman: Only in some instances, because white supremacy in the world still exists, as systemic racism. Women, whether Asian or white, have to face similar issues, but I think that Asian women are still stereotyped, globally.
If you think about it, I have become really well known after the commission at Tate, but it took the art world forty years to wake up to me! I still think that some curators, and projects with Government funding, don’t do enough research on south Asian women.
The Tate bought my prints from the early 1980’s five or six years ago, but other British institutions should have supported this type of work years ago!
I’d like to conclude returning briefly to your art practice. You said that you collect the most disparate materials from travels and markets to use in your work. Are you fond of collecting something in particular at the moment?
Chila Kumari Burman: I tend to get bored with things and move on to something else. I’m getting a bit bored with art and paint shops, as everything else is closed. I think I will go to Charity shops when they open again, to buy textiles, fabrics, and jewelry.
How much planning and how much improvisation respectively get into your work?
Chila Kumari Burman: Both, I plan and improvise. Sometimes I don’t have a clue and just follow my nose, or I draw on my sketchbook and do collages to get more ideas. I’m not a career artist, I think I’m more addicted to this. But I definitely had to have a plan for Tate.
Sources and insights: Chila Burman's website *John Holt (1997) Chila Kumari Burman, Third Text, 11:41, 96-9