Chila Kumari Singh Burman: From Radical to Sentimental, and Beyond

Chila Burman’s latest multimedia installation, remembering a brave new world, is currently on display as part of the Tate Britain Winter Commission. Here, we take a look at Burman’s career, and how radical politics has informed personal memory…

Words by Alexander Stubbs

Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s (1957-) work over the past thirty years has addressed a variety of themes, from radical politics of nuclear disarmament and social progressivism, to more intimate personal memory and religious mythology. The controversial and daring nature of her early work – still somewhat under-appreciated in art circles – has earned her a place at the forefront of British art and, specifically, the movement of female British-South Asian artists, whilst her more palatable and colourful work of the 21st Century has brought her to a wider audience.

Graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982, Burman’s work spans across time and medium in a unique way. Employing the use of printmaking, painting, film, collage, and photography, Burman exemplifies what it means to be a “multimedia” artist. Her earliest work Riot Series, the culmination of her art school studies and a reaction to the social, political, and racial tensions of 1980s Britain, is a far cry from the more playful and colourful work of her later career, where ice-cream trucks and cones dominate Burman’s oeuvre. 

Yet, Burman remains relevant, even as her contemporaries have faded out of the spotlight. Though she no longer treads the path of overt political protest that defined so much of her early work, Burman’s talent for marrying intimate personal history with wider female and South Asian identity still feels important.

Riot Series: Burman at her most political

Fresh out of art school and acutely aware of the social tensions that were boiling over, Burman’s Riot Series captures the sentiments of a young, radically-minded generation that were using their voices to combat those in power. Conceived at the height of nuclear tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, Burman’s “Triptych No Nukes” (1982) depicts gasmask-wearing riot police etched onto the print, overlaid with red hazard symbols and progressively deteriorating as the triptych evolves to the point where the subjects are almost indecipherable from the background. Burman’s awareness of an international politics is mirrored by a more domestic protest, seen in other Riot Series works such as “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress – Uprisings” (1981) where text is laid over newspaper clippings and Burman’s etchings.

Lynda Nead, who has written extensively on Burman’s career, writes of Burman’s artistic process in Riot Series:

“Particular themes begin to emerge from Burman’s work from the 1970s and 1980s. Firstly, there is the idea of layering: of surfaces being built up, one upon another, creating dense walls of ink, paint, line and meaning. And secondly, there is the theme of fragmentation: of the image being broken up and subsequently reconstituted in order to shift stereotypes and to create radical forms of meaning.”1

Fragmentation plays a key role in Burman’s “Militant Women” (1982) where Burman shifts focus to female identity and oppression faced by women across the world, indicating the start of what would become a central theme in her later work. “Militant Women” exists within a wider, global context of female identity: the physical framing of images of women and newspaper clippings highlights a sense of historical oppression that requires archiving, rooting them firmly in the reality of the moment. 

Riot Series is a reminder that Burman was as socially-radical as she was artistically progressive; the printmaking techniques she used pushed the boundaries of what was possible, whilst her choice of subject equally embodied a level of protest that was fresh and necessary in 80s Thatcherite Britain. Ultimately, Burman’s early work finds itself in its ability to confront the ills of society, the result of a modern social consciousness and sense of fearlessness in the face of moral and political wrong.

remembering a brave new world, 2020

2020 sees Burman’s latest work, “remembering a brave new world,” being realised as part of the Tate Britain Winter Commission. Inspired partly by the festivities of Diwali, and partly by more challenging themes such as colonial history (Burman switches out the figure of Britannia in favour of Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power) and personal memory, this mixed-media installation interrogates the intersection between aesthetics and the gallery space. 

Burman’s installation on the façade of Tate Britain. Image courtesy of Tate.

An ode to her family history as well as her artistic oeuvre, the front steps of the Tate Britain is now home to a neon sculpture of her family ice cream van: a theme she has visited and revisited countless times over her career most notably in “Eat Me Now” (2013), a 5ft sculpture of an ice cream cone that pays homage to her father’s ice cream van.

 As religious mythology sits alongside personal history it becomes clear that, for Burman, these are themes that are impossible to separate. In “remembering a brave new world,” she is inviting us to explore the installation not only as a physical site, but as a metaphysical one: a place where history is drawn out, and promises of a better future are made.

Chila Kumari Burman, Eat Me Now, 2013, mixed media. Image courtesy of Chila Kumari Singh Burman.

Burman’s work here ultimately “takes inspiration from the luminous struggles and victories of the past to offer hope for a brighter future,”2 a visual reminder that things will, inevitably, get better.

Burman’s installation is on view between 14 November 2020 – 31 January 2021

  1. Lynda Nead, Chila Kumari Burman, Beyond Two Cultures, London 1995.
  2. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman

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