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‘We have to stay awake and alert because we’re living in crazy times,’ the artist Chila Kumari Burman says, as she gives me a guided tour of the illuminated neon extravaganza she has emblazoned across Covent Garden market.
Her fantastical dreamland, Do You See Words In Rainbows? — a maximalist collision of flamingos, Bollywood film posters, ice-lollies, colonial history and gods — has the same powerful hallmarks of her installation on the outside of Tate Britain during lockdown, a rare moment of joy during the pandemic.
Resplendent in a silver Paul Smith biker jacket, black leggings and a sparkly red-sequinned T-shirt, Burman, 63, feels like someone on the cusp of superstardom as she stands among her light sculptures, bold colours and optimistic messages, all inspired by her fascination with cultural identities, feminism, mythology, her Liverpudlian upbringing and Hindu Punjabi heritage.
It’s quite the London takeover — she is also exhibiting at Mayfair’s Paradise Row gallery and submitted two pieces to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. She is also one of a handful of artists who have created a limited-edition print for sale in aid of the WWF’s Art For Your World programme to raise awareness of environmental damage at the imminent UN Climate Change conference, Cop26. And she even recently learnt that one of her works, Bengal Tiger Van, has pride of place in Rishi Sunak’s office.
‘From the Tate thing my profile has gone through the ceiling,’ she beams, ‘I’ve smashed through the glass ceiling. And now it’s like so much in demand. I switch on my phone and it’s like, oh my God. People treat me like a different person now.’
She admits she is ‘a little bit’ pissed off fame has been slow to arrive, when she has been working as an artist for so long. ‘That’s why we talk about systemic racism. That’s why we talk about anti-feminism. Why has it taken the Tate so long to commission me? Well, not just them… I had a lot of shows in the 1980s and 1990s because the art world recognised black and Asian artists then. Then all of a sudden it was like that was it. It was almost like some of the galleries were saying, “Well, we’ve done you all.” So we all went off and did our own things.’
Burman, who was born in Bootle, Merseyside, to Punjabi parents, takes inspiration from her early life. Her father sold ice-cream on Freshfield beach for 30 years from a van decorated with a large Bengal tiger figurine. Cones and that cat would become mainstay motifs in what she describes as her ‘blinged-up but razor sharp’ multimedia work, spanning etchings, print, collage, paint, sculpture and photography.
Her parents agreed that she could leave home to study art at Leeds Polytechnic and then Slade School of Art, a decision deemed controversial by the local Punjabi community. ‘They were, like, gasp! You’ve let your daughter go to Leeds — gasp! — you’ve let your daughter go to London. And my dad said, “She travels the world like a man.” My mum and dad are responsible for setting me free. I had to get out of the house anyway,’ she continues, ‘because they were trying to marry me off. It was only when I got to 27 they all said, “You’re on the shelf, nobody will want you.” Great!’
After graduating from the Slade in 1982, Burman got a residency at the Hornsey School of Art. What followed was decades of ‘exploring the experiences and aesthetics of Asian femininity’, working largely — but not entirely — unnoticed at the intersection of feminism, race and activism as she funded her art with Greater London Council money from working as an artist in residence in schools. Moving in circles with artists such as Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson, Marlene Smith and Keith Piper, she was a key member of the British Black Arts movement in the 1980s and one of the first South Asian women to make political art in the UK. Around that time she co-founded an Asian feminist magazine published in six languages called Mukti. Tens of exhibitions followed and slowly Burman began to exhibit internationally. But it’s fair to say her breakthrough moment has been slower than expected.
‘It’s true that women and artists of colour have been overlooked for too long by commercial galleries and in museum shows,’ says Charlotte Appleyard, director of development at the Royal Academy. ‘But that’s changing very quickly. There’s still a lot of work to be done but you can see a palpable change. It’s exciting.’
In 2018 Burman received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts London for her impact and recognised legacy as a British and international artist, and was later invited to become a member of the exclusive Art Workers Guild. She regrets that she never had children, but she ‘never found the right man… and wouldn’t have children for the sake of it. I think a dad has to be super cool, and I just didn’t find the right one.’ She still lives in her flat in Manor House, swims every day and loves Asma Khan’s restaurant Darjeeling Express: ‘It’s fantastic, like my mum’s home cooking’.
She admires the work of Louise Bourgeois: ‘She’s so cool. And I also like the way she became well known much later in life… but you know it’s the thing now’. Late onset fame ‘feels good’, says Burman. ‘You can deal with things more than you could before, you come into yourself.’
That Saturday evening I visit Burman in her studio in Hackney, which is surrounded by dilapidated tower blocks and filled with bindis, stickers, knick knacks, her ‘junk treasures’ as she calls them. Over chai and biscuits, she says she’s ‘buzzing’ from the Covent Garden show and optimistic for the future. ‘After 40 years of hard, hard work, it’s great to see my popularity soaring. While it is nice to finally be recognised more publicly, what I’ve found most rewarding through my recent site-specific pieces is bringing a sense of joy and positivity into people’s lives. It has been such a difficult time for us all and being able to make an uplifting impact is what I’m valuing most.’
It’s time for the diversity of British artists to be represented by our galleries, there’s an imbalance and it needs redressing
But ultimately talk turns to gallery representation. Burman’s success is beginning to exceed her capacity to single-handedly deal with all the admin involved in the selling and marketing of her work. ‘I’m overdue gallery representation, of course I am,’ she says. ‘I think it’s time for the diversity of British artists to be represented by our galleries, there’s an imbalance and it needs redressing.’
Chila Kumari Burman’s Do You See Words In Rainbows?’ is in Covent Garden until 10 October. Her work is at Paradise Row gallery until 29 October (paradiserow.co)