For more than twenty-five years, Chila Kumari Burman has pushed the limits of creative experimentation across print, collage, paint, sculpture, photography and mixed media. Throughout her career the artist has drawn on a plethora of aesthetic strategies ranging from the use of found objects and Hannah Höch inspired collage to Arte Povera-style use of diverse materials with a post-punk DIY attitude. At the core of her practice is a consistent commitment to explore the politics and poetics of printmaking as an extensive reproductive and accessible technology. This is particularly evident in Burman’s ‘Auto-Portraits’ – her singular decades-long project of using the technologies of print and photographic media as a radical experiment in the self-fashioning of subjectivity and identity that prefigures in many ways the current obsession with ‘selfies’ enabled by smartphones and social media, and speaks to the potential for the technological manipulation of media to liberate and subvert subjectivity in an endless process of reinvention. In some ways, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s description of his own influential theories of the work of art in an age of technological reproduction, these works are “…quite useless for the purposes of Fascism. They can, on the other hand, be used to formulate revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” (Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Penguin Books, 2008, first published 1936).
Burman’s playful subversion of identity in works such as This Is Not Me where identity-as-image is simultaneously asserted and denied, exemplify her complex and open ended exploration of multiple selfhoods that goes way beyond simplistic and static notions of ‘identity politics’. The artist’s work in this area has been informed by a complex matrix that draws on a bewildering array of heterogeneous elements: fashion; Bollywood; found objects; the politics of femininity; the production of sexuality and authorship; the relationship between popular culture and high art; gender and the body-politic. Works from the early 1990s such as the Fly Girl series perfectly illustrate this radical heterogeneity where both image and medium are manipulated in a variety of ways. Images of the artist’s face are repeated, pulled, overlaid and distorted in a blur of colour and rhythm. Burman often hand paints over photographs and transforms the image through the use of a laser copier. There is a political as well as an aesthetic logic to this process as the artist herself remarks:
“These self-portraits position the construction of racial and sexual identity as a process that is crafted and fluid within the process of representation. My manipulation of the photographic image questions the idea of the photograph as a document of the empirical reality to reveal ‘an image of myself’… My work is about a continual exploration of my dual cultural identity and the construction of identities other than my own…” (Chila Kumari Burman quoted in Lynda Nead’s monograph on the artist, ‘Chila Kumari Burman: Beyond Two Cultures’, Kala Press, London 1995)
Bringing together the largest collection of self-portraits in one space the artist has worked with the curators to develop a salon style hang that reflects her personal creative vision. Also included are two BBC documentaries about the artist’s life and work.
This exhibition has been curated by Professors Paul Goodwin and Sonia Boyce, UAL Joint Chairs of Black Art and Design, in collaboration with the artist Chila Kumari Burman and with the assistance of Benito Mayor and Halina Kaszycka-Williams.
Since the mid-1980s I have been exploring the experiences and aesthetics of Asian femininity in paintings and installations, photography and printmaking, video and film. In my more recent works, this theme has taken on a new power and vibrancy. I am currently making a new body of work to draw all of these together and to develop the ideas and images contained in the new cultural contexts of national and international politics in the twenty-first century.
In recent works such as 'Fortune', 'Perfect Fit', and 'A moment to Herself' (cibachrome and painterly laser prints), I explore issues of gender and race through the aesthetics of collecting. Dress accessories, lingerie, bhindhis, bras, flowers, hair- pieces, jewellery and make up allow me to play with the formal properties of these materials, working with repetition and patterns as well as with their allusions to the hyper-feminine, the sexual and the everyday. In this work I take the idea of arte povera and recycled materials one feminist step further, using as my 'worthless' materials the pretty 'girly' detritus that many consider cheap kitsch and unworthy of serious contemplation.
One of my present projects is a recreation of my dad's ice-cream van - complete with Bengal tiger on the roof - as a vehicle for displaying and touring my own art work. Once inside, the visitor will discover a creative environment of fine art and archived memories juxtaposed with music, video and graphics. The project explores serious and contemporary questions about representation and self-identity in a humorous and approachable way that aims to attract new audiences to the visual arts. The project extends recent work that has used family portraits in order to construct personal and collective histories concerned with South Asian People and women in particular. In these pieces the private and the individual are used in order to confront wider social issues, proposing a dual cultural heritage in relation to historical and political context.
My current art practice is a progressive culmination of over twenty years of experimental work in a wide range of media including photography and photomontage, graphics and plastic arts, video, sound, installation and performance. much of my work emerges from a tradition of graphic political satire, generated from an adversarial position within the gender and identity politics of a post-colonial, class oriented, and visually saturated contemporary Britain. By dwelling on the poetics of visual composition and arrangement - dealing with the complexities of framing, layering and assemblage - an alternative and distinctive formal relationship has emerged in my work. In a maturing of sensibilities shaped through an ongoing engagement with art practice, my current interests invite and engage viewers to experience a new dynamics and intimacy of looking.
Noun, feminine, Punjabi;
translation: a woman with attitude
A great deal has been written about Chila Kumari Burman. Indeed, there is a great deal to say. Her work spans twenty five years of intense, sustained artistic engagement with a dazzling array of media: printmaking, installation, collage, found objects, sculpture, photography and painting. And each aesthetic and creative push is undertaken through the prism of Chila’s Punjabi-Liverpudlian-feminist values and vision. Chila embodies all and expresses these with a verve and edginess that is all her own. She is, superbly and without apology, a Majajani.
This exhibition aims to show work from 2000 to the present. Looking beyond the surface riot of colour and discombobulating textures and materiality of her work there is an uncomfortable prickliness, an anger, a knowing and very serious artist, looking out at us, and challenging/demanding that we sit up and take notice.
Even in the most apparently joyful images there is a distinct underlying darkness peppered with what can only be a female Punjabi fighting spirit. This is very familiar to all those who are daughters of Punjabi immigrants scattered around the world: the determined, relentless energy of Chila’s work bursts out of the frame, off the page, through walls and up and over roofs. The energy and resonance of colour is quintessential Punjabi: the sheer exuberance, the joie de vivre and fierce life and love-enhancing assault of colour are contained in the frenzied dance of pigments and objects across and over Chila’s creations. However, it would be dangerous to try and contain and describe Chila’s art as “contemporary,” “pop,” “British,” “Black,” “Asian” or “syncretic.” Neither can her work be categorised as exploring “two cultures.” Her art is all of these things but moves beyond these imposed descriptions.
Panwe angrezi te panwe de Punjabi touch:
Nach, Punjaban nach, Punjaban nach…
“Give it an English or a Punjabi touch:
Dance Punjabi chick, dance…”
But this visual dancing is no undisciplined gambol. Rather, Chila’s practice is firmly grounded in rigorous and hard-won academic training. The unforgiving and demanding disciplines of drawing and printmaking form the foundation of all of her work. Indeed, this foundation is what makes Chila’s creations as inexhaustible as poetry and visually compelling beyond the fashions of the art market.
Chila’s art is neither anodyne nor seeking to please. At its heart lie two recurring and enduring themes: defiance and love. Pyar hi pyar…
Art Consultant, Curator and Lecturer, Indian Art, SOAS