Chila Kumari Singh Burman: A Bright Light
By Tiffany Leung
Chila Kumari Singh Burman has been making art around the clock for over 40 years. Her lifelong work of multimedia storytelling recasts our understanding of feminine power and British-Punjabi identity in a way that is intensely personal yet audaciously political, and speaks to the resilience of migrant heritage. On most nights, she draws in a sketchbook that she keeps next to her bed, often leaving pencil marks and oil-pastel smudges on her sheets. During the day, she can be found working in Hackney, East London, in her studio, which the artist dubs her “second bedroom,” alluding to the intimacy of the space and the amount of time she spends there.
On a Sunday afternoon in October, I walked along quiet streets and through unassuming estates before arriving at the repurposed building where her studio is located. The architecture was easily distinguishable from its post-war surroundings by its silvery profile. Not long ago, the building underwent renovation to improve its appearance and interior conditions. The most notable feature is a renewed exterior, where the original decaying brickwork is now sheathed under a new skin of corrugated metallic cladding.
Burman appeared at the entrance and gestured me inside just as she waved goodbye to someone else. The artist was wearing a black hoodie with her Bengal tiger drawing on the front, an autobiographical element and prominent motif in her works. “I just finished a new collage for Frieze Art Fair and sent it off to be framed,” she explained as she led me down a dimly lit corridor. “We were having some chai tea while waiting for the rain to pass, she [the gallery assistant] almost got caught in the rain without an umbrella, imagine if that had happened!” Burman chattered cheerily about the temperamental weather and faulty corridor lights as we made our way up to the second floor.
Stepping inside the doors from the dark hall, I was immediately met with a delightful visual feast; the room was awash in a riot of colors and textures. Her etchings, prints, and collages were densely arrayed in a salon hang, or stacked and leaned against the walls where postcards, articles, and pictures were also tacked on with their edges slightly overlapping, recalling the artist’s trademark assemblage technique. Every surface and corner of the room was occupied—packaging and textiles sprawled across the sofa while frames, storage boxes, and poster tubes were tightly stowed on high racks. Scattered across the studio, among heaps of art supplies, paint tubes, glitter, stickers, and packets of bindis spilling from trays and cupboards, were what she calls “junk treasures,” which include a disco ball, candy bras, gems, heart- shape champagne flutes, sequin ribbons, squishy keychains, and candy-colored spoons. “I can’t resist buying them, I go into the stores like I'm a millionaire and tell myself that I need everything,” Burman confessed as she pulled open one of the drawers brimming with acrylic jewels. She continued describing times when she filled suitcases with bindis from India and gemstones from Sri Lanka, and ended up with no space left for her belongings. “Sometimes I don’t even remember what I have bought, but now I can’t get my hands on them as easily because of the pandemic . . . maybe it’s a good chance to use them up, or I might try to paint more. There are these gorgeous paints ... their range of colors are just divine,” the artist said of her collection of materials.
Weaving together artistic outputs and personal memorabilia, Burman’s studio felt like a kind of survey exhibition and archival display. Standing on one end of the floor was one of her best-known sculptural pieces Eat Me Now (2013), a giant, glittery ice cream cone with embellished details that evokes a childlike pleasure. Just across the room, intriguingly, was a half-dressed, half-painted mannequin, another one of her “junk treasures,” draped in shimmering rhinestones, ribbons, feathers, and other kitsch accessories that she had collected from different places. Like her oeuvre, the studio exuded a sense of floridity and vitality: “People always say it could be like an installation on its own, like Tracy Emin’s bed. If I just shift everything out to a gallery space, that could be it,” she said, before adding, “When I get to do a big solo exhibition, I’m also going to make sure to do a salon hang of these.” She gestured toward some mixed-media collages on the wall, depicting bedazzled and embroidered Indian goddesses, elephants, and kaleidoscope patterns, from India Illuminated! (2017), a series of 29 works commissioned by London’s Science Museum and inspired by India’s role in the history of science and technology.
After some probing around, we settled down with chai tea and raspberry biscuits at a table by the window overlooking a garden across the street. The large window funnels natural light into the room, instilling a sense of calmness. “I’ve started to really appreciate the view, especially when the trees get their blossoms on. Even when I’m here working till late and it’s dark, I still enjoy looking outside.” Recently, Burman has been juggling multiple new commissions, projects, and interviews following the huge success of her Tate Britain Winter Commission last year entitled Remembering a Brave New World (2020), a playful neon installation of Hindu, Bollywood, and personal symbols that illuminated the facade of the museum and the banks of the Thames during a time of pandemic misery. It was so popular that the Tate extended the commission. When we met, it was the last week of her Covent Garden commission, another neon takeover of the historic market halls in the city’s West End. Burman doesn’t shy away from talking about her growing recognition, “I switch on my phone and it’s crazy, there are always so many people trying to reach me. They treat me like a different person now.” Her upcoming projects will be displayed as part of the annual outdoor events Blackpool Illuminations, River of Light, and Lightpool Festival, as well as in Grundy Art Gallery, all located in Liverpool, where she was born and raised. In her formative childhood years, Burman’s parents used to take her to visit Blackpool Illuminations, which played a part in the inspirations of her recent neon creations.
Born in 1957 to Punjabi parents, Burman spoke fondly about her childhood and how it inspired her works. Her parents “didn’t come from an art background but understood it in their own way,” and were supportive of Burman’s passion. Unlike other Indian girls at the time, she was encouraged to pursue her studies away from home and completed her art foundation at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University) before furthering her knowledge of printmaking at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Burman is very much an amalgam of her parents’ attributes; her mother was an outgoing woman who was skilled at knitting and embroidering, her father was a magician (the sword-swallowing, fire-eating kind), as well as a tailor and an ice-cream vendor. “He was very proud of his heritage. Everyone else had Batman or Robin on their van’s roof, but he had a Bengal tiger.” Referencing her father’s ice-cream van, Burman installed a beaded tiger on top of My Tuk-Tuk (2018), the carnivalesque three-wheeled vehicle adorned with bling-bling stickers, wrapping paper, fairy lights, and Hindu imagery that was recently displayed in the foyer of Tate Britain as part of the Winter Commission. Objects and stories related to her father’s ice-cream van are significant motifs in Burman’s prolific scope of work, representing a reincarnation of her parents’ spirits and a symbol for the artist’s optimism and valiance.
Burman has remained playfully defiant and indomitably hopeful throughout her whole career, enabling viewers to revel in the wit and aesthetic delight of her work. When asked about her motivations as an artist, she simply states, “I just follow my nose and do whatever that makes me happy, and I always think about the future.” Unbridled by mainstream art-world paradigms and shifting realities, she is unabashed in her pursuit of life, desire, and happiness, reminding us that imaginative joy is entwined with subversion and resistance, and prevails through darkness into light.