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‘Without us there is no Britain’

Chila Kumari Burman: Artists Turning Chaos into Order, Tate

This month, Black her_story* features the inimitable Chila Kumari Burman – and couldn’t be more timely. As 2020 draws to a close and we reflect on the past twelve months, for many it is likely to involve a focus on darkness, loneliness and disconnect – in and around us – a period of turmoil and uncertainty. When even the traditionally jolly season hasn’t delivered and January looms under a strict lockdown - we need all the cheering up we can get.

Enter Chila Kumari Burman and her uplifting, thought provoking installation adorning the façade of Tate Britain.

East London based, self-styled Punjabi Liverpudlian whose work is the hallmark of her rich heritage, Chila has been working across a vast range of media - printmaking, painting, sculpture, photography, film, collages, installations – for the last four decades. In her creations, she challenges stereotypical assumptions of Asian women and explores the experiences and aesthetics of Asian femininity - a theme that has recently taken on a new power and vibrancy, as is very visible in her latest installation.

Her art is informed by a wonderful, complex mixture of ‘popular culture, Bollywood, fashion, found objects, the politics and the celebration of femininity; self-portraiture, the exploration of the production of her own sexuality and dynamism; the relationship between popular culture and high art; gender and identity politics. And her new body of work draws all of these together to develop the ideas and images contained in the new cultural contexts of national and international politics in the twenty-first century.’[i]

Remembering A Brave New World

Launched for Diwali (13 – 16 November), the Hindu, Sikh and Jain festival which celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, the installation is a true festival of multicoloured neon lights. It merges Indian mythology with pop cultural references and cherished childhood memories and totally overshadows the traditional neo-classical portico of Tate Britain – a befitting reminder in a year that has seen sustained anti-racist and anti-colonial unrest.

There is something very satisfying about seeing the towering statue of Britannia covered by a neon image of Hindu goddess Kali. Often represented in the West as the goddess of destruction, in India, Kali is a manifestation of the divine feminine and is mainly seen as a saviour and protector. I loved the juxtaposition of feminist and anti-colonial imagery, perfectly portrayed by Lakshmi Bai, rani (queen) of Jhansi, who trained and led her own army to fight off the British in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. She died on the battlefield a year later, but herstory is being revived and it’s extraordinary.

Amidst the sparkle and dazzle of the neon lights - an instagrammer’s dream – there is her_story, spiritual imagery and inspirational slogans. There is Chila's exuberance, thoughtfulness and playfulness, her vivacity and intricate attention to detail – all of which make the installation look stunning day and night. In light and darkness, it will make you reflect, it will lift your spirits and give you joy.

Practical info:

Remembering a Brave New World is on until 31 January 2021. It is an outdoor exhibition and is therefore safe to visit. However, please note, London is currently in Tier 4 and it is not advisable to travel on public transport. For more information.

Interesting background info:

*This regular feature in London Feminista seeks to move beyond Black History Month to put racialised and minoritised people from Black, Asian, Ethnic Minorities or Indigenous backgrounds front and centre of feminist writing and storytelling. London Feminista is an intersectional feminist blog and shared space – a space for recognition, celebration and appreciation of racialised, minoritised and marginalised womxn – and feminist brothers - in our everyday lives.


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