Art and activism co-exist in Chila Burman’s works

The London-based British Punjabi artist’s multi-media exhibits are piercing ecplorations of class and race

Updated - March 08, 2018 06:06 pm IST

Published - March 08, 2018 05:18 pm IST

 British Punjabi artist Chila Kumari Burman

British Punjabi artist Chila Kumari Burman

A walk through the spartanly decorated corridors of a former warehouse in Hackney, East London, can end in a blaze of colour and sparkle, as one enters the working studio of British Punjabi artist Chila Kumari Burman. The small room with a massive window streaming in the sunshine, is tightly packed with her pieces, reflecting more than three decades of her work as one of Britain’s leading activist, and experimental BME artists — from self portraits parodying portrayals of South Asian women in Britain to warming memories of her childhood in the blustery northern port city of Liverpool to angry political reflections on the states of global politics.


A flavour of Chila Burman’s work can currently be seen at the Science Museum in central London, where she has created a set of pieces that run alongside the museum’s ‘Illumination India’ exhibition (offering a perspective on the past 5,000 years of India’s contribution to science and culture). Eye-catching, often tongue in cheek, all with a message for the viewer willing to take the extra moment. There’s ‘Raising the Roof,’ a kaleidoscope of colour, evocative of fireworks and ‘Mokshapat,’ a bejewelled and tasselled snakes and ladders with the words ‘honesty’ and ‘respect’ in white hologramic writing, and ‘poverty,’ ‘gambling’ and ‘ruin’ in black glitter — harking back to the origins of the game as a means of teaching children morals and consequences as well as to a theme that has formed a central element of her work — the treatment of women. As easy on the eye as it may be to look at, Burman’s work is almost always imbued with a social and political message.

Her ‘28 positions in 34 years’ (cheekily named after Prince’s 23 Positions in a One-Night Stand) is exhibiting at a Birmingham exhibition on sexuality, gender and identity and is her ironic response to the stereotypical interpretations — for both herself and her work — that she’s seen over the course of her career — from the alluring, to the exotic, to the rebel. She’s held exhibitions from India to Thailand, and works with a range of textures from print to photos and paint, and has recently been using her iPad to create pieces.


Colour has always been an essential part of Chila Burman’s life. Growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Bootle (now part of suburban Liverpool), before eventually moving to posher parts of the city, the muted colours of the surrounding city contrasted with her home, which had bright coloured walls, and a family with strong creative personalities, who constantly played host to others, who had made the move from India, and would not stand for their children being shy or retiring. She remembers fire, shiny blades and glass from her father’s magic performance for dockworkers (he had honed his talents as a magician back in Kolkata), and the bright, sugary ice creams he sold on the city’s nicest beach from his ice cream van, ‘Burmans,’ with a tiger atop it (he changed his name from Singh).

Her father persuaded many others in the burgeoning local Indian community to follow suit. “There may have been a doctor here, an engineer there but where we lived the Indians were all selling ice cream!” she recalls. Ice cream is a theme she’s returned to again and again in her work. They include a giant free standing ice cream cone to a portrait of her family’s ice cream van on a beach in Liverpool overlain by an upside-down 10 pound note and a portrait of a woman barely visible under gemstones, bindis and stickers: a parody of the traditional sexualised portrait of women in ice cream adverts. “So you think that is sexy? I’ll show you what sexy is! I love taking the micky out of ice cream adverts and how they are just so often totally misogynist,” she laughs in her warm Liverpudlian accent.

While many Asian Brits who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s have spoken of the overt stigma faced (they include comedienne Meera Syal, some of whose books Burman has created the artwork for), Burman insists that it was something she rarely encountered. This was partly because, she believes that other communities such as the Irish and Scottish in Liverpool took the flack where she grew up. White English neighbours would help her parents with childcare, and ensure that she and her siblings were as integrated as possible. “They didn’t give a dicky’s what background we were from. I think as a result of my experiences I have an understanding of the white working class culture… I know where they are coming from.”

While she did not allow race to hold her back, Chila Burman believed that it figured into perceptions of her — particularly at art school, where as an Indian she stood out from the crowd. She still believes that while there is much interest in Indian art from India within the British art world, there’s been a reluctance within the establishment to embrace the contribution of British Asian artists fully — a theme that has itself become implanted in her work.

In addition to her art, Chila she has authored a number of thought pieces considered seminal to the understanding of the development of black and minority ethnic art in Britain including her 1986 essay, ‘There have Always Been Great Black Women Artists,’ in which she examines the systemic, cultural and other biases that stood in the way of BME women artists gaining the full recognition and support they deserved, and continues to be referred to in academia dealing with the position of black women artists. Things have improved somewhat, in the past couple of decades, but not as much as they should have, she says, and particularly for South Asian women. She is hopeful that people such as Maria Balshaw, the first woman to head the Tate galleries, will speed up the change and bring about further diversity particularly at major galleries that needs to take place. “We need more curators from South Asian backgrounds, we need more exhibitions, solo works, our work in major collections,” says Chila.

Class and race have formed an important part of her work — such as in her portraits of police officers, during the 1981 race riots that gripped parts of Britain. Like many BME artists, Burman felt compelled to tell a different narrative to the developments to that was which was happening through mainstream channels.

Protest mural

In 1986 she was commissioned to create a protest mural of Southall Black Resistance with black artist Keith Piper, which was destroyed when the Conservatives won local elections. Gender as a theme runs strongly through her work, whether through self-portraits of herself doing a form of Karate or pieces using bras made out of candy.

Working in Hackney, home to one of Europe’s largest and most vibrant artistic scenes, Burman says that community has always been a central part of her life: from the large Indian community, her family was intertwined with in Liverpool, constantly welcomed newcomers from across Indian communities to its fold, to her move to London to study at the Slade School of Art in the early 1980s, when she got involved in activist groups such as Southall Black Sisters and the Southall Asian and African Arts Collective, some of the movements that sought to provide a forum for BME artists and women in particular, to actively and on their own terms make their mark upon an art world that continued to be dominated by white, male culture.

Burman is a self-professed magpie of objects and ideas — she collects bits and pieces from bindis to glittery ice cream cones, to scraps of magazines such as the New Internationalist and Private Eye, all of which can jolt an idea out of her at any moment in time. Environmental issues and the resurgence of questions around the treatment of women following recent revelations of sexual harassment globally and the #MeToo campaign are upper most in her mind. “It’s about time these things come out — we’ve known about them for years and we should have been dealing with this donkeys of years ago,” she exclaims. Other recent issues she’s taken up include, the recent global tax scandals, via an angry evocative piece, the ‘Paradise Papers,’ and she’s haunted by the recent controversy over sexual abuse in the charity industry, triggered by the revelations over senior figures at the British charity Oxfam.

“I’m always an activist and an artist... I’m never ever short of things to comment on,” she says. “In a way I feel I can do anything!” she sums up.

Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London

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