Memory, its mediation and its expression, particularly in a diasporal context, is a key research area for the Department of Creative Critical and Communication Studies at the University of Greenwich. We’re a young, international and multicultural group of academics and artists. The relationship between creative practice as a way of ‘doing’ theory and of academic theory as creative practice is central to both our research and to our teaching. So we’re very pleased to present Chila Kumari Burman’s latest show. Burman is a renowned artist whose work engages exuberantly with the themes of memory and diasporal identity. Burman’s prints suggest that identity itself is a collage, her installation that memory is a bittersweet playground where past and present meet. She draws on diverse cultural sources, from calendar images of Hindu deities, old family snapshots, ice-lollies to sex toys, for her work. The eye-popping confections these collisions, confluences and collusions results in are seductive food for thought. Identity is not a given; like memory it is in flux; fractured, multiplied, constantly up for renegotiation. Burman’s expressive negotiation of the space between personal memory, popular culture, contested politics and collective histories is as playful as it is thought provoking.
Head of the Department of Creative, Critical and Communication Studies
University of Greenwich
Chila Kumari Burman is a Scouser.1 It isn't necessary to know this fact to be enchanted by her art, but if you wish to dip beneath its surface, knowing something about her background might help. Chila is Desi 2; her parents left the Punjab following partition. They settled in Liverpool. Scousers are aristocrats, they known about the world. They have travelled to, and come from, its distant places: ‘roll up for the mystery tour. The magical mystery tour is dying to take you away,… take you today – (The Beatles).
Long before Rome, Athens, the Pyramids of Egypt, or the tale of Gilgamesh, the Punjab was the cradle of civilization. Writing was invented there. Sanskrit, the root of all Indo-European tongues, was spoken there. The Vedas were composed there. Liverpool is a city. The Punjab is a region. But despite their differences in scale, these two locations correspond in many ways. They are conduits of cultural mixing. Merseybeat and Bhangra are vital rhythms in the world. Liverpudlians 3 and Punjabis are each much larger than life: ‘like two winds ageing not, two confluent rivers’, they ‘come with quick vision like two eyes before us… and guide us like two feet to what is precious’ 4– (The Rig Veda).
Among her influences Chila cites: ‘Bollywood, Dada and Surrealism, Hindu philosophy, Indian comics, popular culture’ and her mum. In private she will talk about Bachan Singh her father, his ice-cream van, and his magic. ‘He would eat razor blades and crushed light-bulbs, and was a regular act at the Seaman’s Club’. He was the leader of the Hindu Temple. When he came to Britain in 1954, Bachan Singh was a skilled bespoke tailor. Jewish families dominated the local clothing industry. He found it difficult to establish a business. So, to attract trade, he added Burman to the family name. Chila was the first daughter born in England. She was also named Kumari, which in Punjabi means princess, and is the female form of Kumara (Sanskrit), from Ku, (difficulty) and Mara (mortal). In Hindu legend, the Kumaras are the mind-born off-spring of Shiva. They are living-human-gods, whose divine spirits conflict with their material bodies. Chila is a feminist, who loves dualities and girlie things. She is a leftie, who loves fashion. ‘Me dad was dead stylish ya-know, he even used-to-ave creases down his pyjama trousers… He never went to school. He knew loads about history, and he hated America. He lived a bloody good life. He drank like a fish, smoked cigars, cigarettes, a pipe and beedies, and keeled over in his eighties. My God!’ When the tailoring business failed, Bachan Singh Burman bought an ice-cream van, and rented a pitch on Freshfield ‘it’s beautiful’ Beach, in Formby.
‘When he got the ice-cream van it was fireworks. Me mum, she kept the whole thing together. Me dad would pile all the money on the floor, and go to the pub. He sent the money back home, to keep the families in India going. Me mum told brilliant jokes, she was dead playful and wicked. They were a wacky couple, both performers – oh the volume in the house! They would tell jokes all night and have people in stitches. We lived at the centre of a community. We spoke Punjabi, ate baked beans and dall, and had to kick the cockroaches out of bed before going to sleep at night’.
Chila studied printmaking at the Slade. She was a messy-pup. She got finger-marks on all her prints. So she made a virtue of this habit, stripped naked, and impressed herself directly on to copper plates. Then she discarded the ‘rule-book’ as well, and started pouring family photos, feathers, sequins, flowers, bras, and sweet-wrappers onto photocopiers. Unlike many printmakers, Chila has never been lured by surface qualities. She is in love with the energies of colour.
‘The house was full of bright calendars, There was Ganesh, who brings wisdom; Durga, who kills poverty and demons; Sita, who was exiled and abducted; Hanuman, the monkey king; and there was the one with a snake around his shoulders, yah-known the one who always looked chilled – Shivji. We had all the Sikh gurus as well’.
She is incurably spontaneous, ‘I don’t plan anything, it just tumbles out’. She is witty and full of innuendo. Her Juicy-Lucy, is not as innocent as it might seem. She has lately been rummaging around in sex-shops, and making collages from the toys she finds. But Chila’s work is never smutty. She can even make a pair of handcuffs seem demure. Her prints are full of things half-hidden and abstracted, glimpses of enchantment, and very quiet jokes. She is a magician who rips-up ephemera to evoke the sparkle of precious stones, the mysterious glow of pearls, and the fires kindled in our hearts.
Collaborating with Chila is rarely easy, or straight-forward. Left to her own devices, she will flood into the studio, and fill every available hard-drive with multiple-variations of each print. To add a further complication, she will give each one a different name. Then she will turn accusingly to the printer, and snarl ‘they’re not my colours, make them look Punjabi’. But this behaviour is not disordered. It is the spirit of a Kumari, a child of Shiva’s primal chaos, dancing on the Mersey to a techno-bhangra beat.
Candy-Pop and Juicy-Lucy features Chila Kumari Burman’s ice-cream-van, which is a Bedford CA similar to the model driven by her dad. I haven’t heard its chimes, but I can imagine it singing out: ‘roll up for the mystery tour. The magical mystery tour is coming to take you away’. She has preserved its identity, yet transformed it into a gallery of her own. ‘Yeh, the ice-cream’s my White Cube!’ It is an exhibit that says; ‘I’ve changed the family business, but I’ve kept to who I was. I’m my parent’s daughter. I’m a working-class-Punjabi-Scouser. And I’m proud’.
John Phillips is the Director of londonprintstudio and has worked with Chila Kumari Burman for over twenty years.
1. Originally slang for people who ate lobscouse, a sailor’s dish made from stewed meats and vegetables (lapskaus Norwegian, labskaus German). As an important port, Liverpool became associated with this Irish Stew type dish, and Liverpudlians became known as Scoucers.
2. From the Sanskrit Deshah meaning nation or motherland, refers to the blend of cultures and identity of the people from the Indian and Pakistan sub-continent.
3. Person from Liverpool, derived from the substitution of ‘puddle’ for ‘pool’ in the city’s name
4. Rig Veda, Hymn XX, Line 5.
SO much to say, to say, this is the hardest thing in the world, Fire, fire, fire, Agg, Agg, Agg,
One struggle after another, one fight after another,
FREEDOM what’s that? Woz, IZ, DEAD hard, Stereotypes reinforces MYSTERY.
NO art books on are shelves at home. NO paper to draw on. Just making ice cream 99’s
Tiger nuts & toffee apples and millions of toffee walking sticks – ART sister art
NO one listens, suppose they must all think it’s Dead easy, they haven’t a clue.
Making rotis night after night, no time for homework, but loadsa sweets to eat from the icecream van,
cornettos, choc-ices & raspberry splits. flakes and screwballs, shells and boats…
Who says all working class Asian girls are quiet, WHA’ in are house? Wild girls, Punjabi, Bhangra,
Gidha, sticky sweets, sweat, who’s wearing the best salwar keemich, glittery, satin, & velvet rage,
Gida Pa, Gidha Pa goria, Dance english sister Dance. Move that body…
Roti Dal & beanz & biscuits, Palma violets, hopscotch under the dim cobbled street lamp in bare
feet in frilly nylon frocks, tatty hair, Red corduroy dresses, sparkly juridar pyjama, white, purple & pink
Indian films every sunday afternoon, all dressed up, tears, nappies, playing is in the ailses,
Chocolate, Coke, Jalebi, Ludu, barfi, and syrupy sweet white masala tea, Bar 6, toffee crisp, grar
Pakeeza, Mother India, Phoolan devi, Jhansi Ki Rani, Meena Kumari, Sita Durga Ma, Kali, where are you
Standing up tall & reaching heights, show’em whatcha got… rebel without a pause…
Proud brand new grammar school uniform, wrong hat, 11 plus, cyclin proficiency, Swim
for the school, act for the school, run for the school, sing for the school, long jump for the school
shot put for the school, first class honours, who says were all Meek and Mild sharp as a knife…
FRAGILE EXPLOSIVE AND SENSITIVE SOULS HANDLE WITH EXTRA CARE AND LOVE.
Wish I could go to discos, parties, dances and have girl friends and boyfriends like all the english
girls and posh asian girls, Anyway they’re all last those fellas, wimps, couldn’t handle us anyway
WE’RE too Wild, Sharp, Smart, Fast, Loud, Dynamic, Soft Sexy and Sensitive.
Stay in, study hard, study art, buy a stereo from the catalogue, It hurts so good,
Hibernate To Liberate – Don’t get me started… let’s Laugh and Dance
Work hard in habitat on Saturdays, rob all the best stuff, for Freedoms sake, Why work?
Study hard, TWICE as hard, hard, hard, hard, madness, slam, slam, slam, work, work, carrying a heavy load,
STRUGGLE, FIGHT, SHOUT, IZZAT? RESPECT US NOW!
Gotta mek it through the night, warm love, sweetpillow, You know what am sayin Don’t cheat us
The World is so cold, ain’t do nothing for your soul.
Cockroaches in the fire place, love mashing them up, stir it up little darlin’, stir it up…
Ther’e must be hundreds of us dying to do art and sing and shout out there,
Why did they have to make it so hard, Go for the BURN, Stretch and Turn
Bad young sister, Reach out and Touch, Let’s make this world a better place, We shall OVERCOME
Aint no stoppin us now, you now, her now, we’re on the move and grooving, chulor, lets go…
STRENGTHEN and UPLIFT the mind… Let’s go CRAZY…
Roti, Kapar, aur Makaan – Food, clothing and shelter. PEACE.
Candy-Pop and Juicy-Lucy
an exhibition of work by Chila Kumari Burman
21 August – 16 September 2006
The Stephen Lawrence Gallery
University of Greenwich, Queen Anne Court
Old Royal Naval College, Park Row
Greenwich SE10 9LS
Photography: Rik Pincombe
All work is mixed media and collage on paper
© all images courtesy of the artist
Supported by the Department of Creative Critical and Communication Studies at the University of Greenwich