Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Chila Kumari Burman was a 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 (Buck, 2020). Her work was most recently exhibited by Tate Britain in 2020, where her piece remembering a brave new world, filled with imagery of iconic Hindu deities and South Asian aesthetics, was the gallery’s winter commission. South Asian feminist perspectives on post-colonial Britain are centred in Burman’s work, which spans multiple media, from printmaking and painting, to installation and film. In my exploration of Chila Kumari Burman, I started to wonder: How do we read and understand her artwork? Is it post-colonial, South Asian, feminist or British? How should we define the artwork’s aesthetic and cultural underpinnings?
Burman was born in Liverpool, to Punjabi parents who moved to the UK in the 1950s (Burman, 2021). In her series of self-portrait prints, 28 Positions in 34 Years, Burman attempts to understand her identity through art – an identity that is usually marginalised and othered in the British art world.
British academic art institutions usually treat South Asian perspectives in art as ‘other’. As a result, the histories of South Asian female artists and their contribution to British art are largely untold in academic settings and prestigious art institutions.
Furthermore, in the art world, a rich variety of perspectives across different countries, backgrounds, and experiences, are all grouped together under the vague label ‘South Asian’. This obscures the intricacies and diversity of art from the region. ‘South Asian’ is a label used to categorise a heterogeneous group of people. Although nominally used to describe people originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the legacy of migration during British colonialism means that the term ‘South Asian’ also includes those born in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and elsewhere in the former colonies (Correia, 2019). In addition, the years following decolonisation saw thousands of displaced people of South Asian descent settle in Britain from former colonies (Correia, 2019). As a result, Britain’s South Asian community includes people from different countries, social classes, religions, and castes, who have different socio-economic backgrounds and levels of political agency (Correia, 2019).
There is complexity in the contemporary art produced by artists of the South Asian diaspora, and it contains multitudes. Encompassing all of this diverse art under the blanket label of ‘South Asian’ has its roots in Western perceptions of the East, rather than authentic cultural histories. Though, South Asians share a common history of trauma, displacement, and discrimination, which means that the label can be a useful starting point for discussion in academic settings (Vartanian, 2017).
Modern British art institutions’ unwillingness to engage with South Asian perspectives has roots in the colonial era. During British rule, colonisers disregarded South Asian art and cultural perspectives, viewing it as inferior, and something to be westernised (Taylor, 2011). The process of westernisation was carried out through the exclusive establishment and commission of art that adhered to European aesthetics (Taylor, 2011). The push for the art world to stick to Eurocentric forms of art appreciation and creation continues to this day in post-colonial Britain, and urgently needs critical review.
As an Indian student and artist in Britain, experiencing ‘otherness’ is an everyday reality for me. When I propose Indian artists in the classroom, relevant to my fellow students’ practice, I am usually met with silence, which I find hard to understand. Though I learned about displacement theories – referring to the movement of a an individual or community due to globalisation – during an academic course on Fine Arts practice, this inclusion of alternative perspectives was limited, as wider decolonial frameworks were never discussed in the classroom. It is difficult to develop and contextualise my personal artistic practices when the resources shared by my peers, tutors and university curriculum are dominated by artists that are predominately white and consistently male.
The strict definition of Britishness and the othering of South Asian culture in art institutions needs to change. It proliferates in everyday discussions in a university environment, limiting the learning process of students. In classrooms, we should discuss books on counterculture and multidimensional creative practices that are written by people whose identities forged those movements. Are the histories that we read, study and circulate in academic spaces completely transparent about their origins? In an academic institution dominated with subject matter from one particular hegemonic class, race and cultural background, the personal creative process is reduced to a biased framework.
Who is behind the decision making on how one approaches art history and criticism, in a world increasingly shaped by fast digital cultures? What ideas are institutions engaging with, that aid our understanding of the world? What meaning does academia instil in learning the cultural histories of a specific community and disregarding multicultural creative practices as ‘other’?
If alternative ways of approaching thinking and learning make you feel uncomfortable, there is an urgent need to explore, and challenge this feeling and its origins further.
I first discovered Chila Kumari Burman’s work at the South London Gallery, while exhibition wandering as a university student. I was immediately drawn to the colour and textures of her artwork. Bright colours are deeply rooted in Indian culture, and they are integral to the lived reality of what I choose to wear and create every day. The ingrained, automatic incorporation of colour in Burman’s work drew me to research her artistic processes further. It also instilled a sense of personal belonging in London for me. In her art, I discovered a safe place, which I was otherwise struggling to find in an academic setting. Burman’s work gave me a place to explore my art without any boundaries. The British university curriculum should broaden understandings of South Asian diaspora perspectives in art. It should frame British history of art within the frameworks of colonialism. Courses on art history, feminism and British empire should be included in Fine Arts practice-based courses, and Chila Kumari Burman’s work should be studied in these courses. The cultural context of contemporary art in Britain and India is multidimensional and interlinked. It is an injustice to future generations of learners to overlook this historical relationship and its current influence on arts and culture in 21st century Britain.
If art criticism remains rooted within a colonial framework, how can it adequately engage with artists whose work or worldview does not fit within that framework? Academic institutions need to include Britain’s colonial history in their curricula, in order to clearly define a path towards a truly post-colonial future. The best way to move forward is to look back to understand and recognise past injustice, which can in turn prevent the repetition of mistakes. Academia can produce an enriching and nurturing environment through the inclusion of diverse voices. The elimination of such voices will only lead to further distrust in academic institutions.
As minorities who struggle to fit into the British establishment, and sometimes in our own communities, we are moved to define a sense of belonging for ourselves. Today, I celebrate the Asian and Black communities who are re-claiming space, and writing ourselves into history on our own terms, creating our own sense of being (Patti, 2018).
Buck, L. (2020) ‘Blinged-up but razor-sharp’: Chila Kumari Singh Burman on her Diwali-inspired Tate Britain commission. Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/interview/chila-kumari-singh-burman-i-use-adornment-but-with-a-message
Bhandar, S.L., Craig, K., Delaronde, L.K., Dhillon, K., and Hogue, T. (2020) What Else Might Be Possible? Towards a Decolonial Criticism. Available at: https://cmagazine.com/issues/145/what-else-might-be-possible-towards-a-decolonial-criticism
Burman, C.K. (2021) Chila Kumari Burman’s official website. Available at: https://www.arts.ac.uk/people/honoraries/chila-kumari-burman)
Correia, A. (2019) Researching Exhibitions of South Asian Women Artists in Britain in the 1980s. Issue 13 British Art Studies. Available at: https://www.britishartstudies.ac.uk/issues/issue-index/issue-13/south-asian-women-artists
Patti, S. (2018) Symrath Patti: The Complete Promise. Available at: https://www.gold.ac.uk/calendar/?id=11711
Taylor, N.A. (2011) Art Without History? Southeast Asian Artists and their Communities in the Face of Geography. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/30157253/Art_Without_History_Southeast_Asian_Artists_and_their_Communities_in_the_Face_of_Geography
Fig. 1, Lynda Nead Chila Kumari Burman Beyond Two Cultures. London, Kala Press, 1995. pp 43-52. Available at: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O88386/28-positions-in-34-years-print-kumari-burman-chila/
Vartanian, H. (2017) What Does It Mean to Make Art in the South Asian Diaspora? Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/391578/what-does-it-mean-to-make-art-in-the-south-asian-diaspora/
Apoorva Singh is a creative with international experience in arts and cultural industries spanning across India, Netherlands and the U.K. Her academic possessions include a BFA (Hons) in Fine Art theory and practice along with MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy from London, UK. If you would like to join me on my creative journey, find me dabbling on something new here- www.apoorvasingh.art / @apoorvasingh.art