Artist Chila Kumari Burman is lighting up London
Talk about coincidence. I was a guest on Woman’s Hour last week (promise not to mention it many more times), and while I waited for my section I listened to Chila Kumari Burman talking about her technicolour installation at Tate Britain. Coming from Blackpool, home of the legendary Illuminations, each winter I make a point of going to see the lights at Tate Britain – and so desperately wanted to join in the radio conversation. No matter. I managed to make contact with the in-demand artist afterwards and we had a quick chat over the phone. Burman’s neon sculptures are pulling in the socially-distanced crowds and as with Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall (2003), this year’s Winter Commission at Tate Britain is having an unexpected affect on visitor’s behaviour. ‘It’s bringing people together – at a distance!’ says Burman, ‘People are turning up with food and drink, sitting quietly on the pavement opposite, contemplating. I’ve been told the installation emanates some kind of warmth – I had no idea it would pan out like that and it’s very moving.’
Born in Liverpool to Punjabi parents, Chila Kumari Burman has been a practising artist for over 30 years. Invited to create the multi-media project in early March, she’s been working flat out ever since, ‘I’m absolutely shattered – but in a nice way,’ she tells me, ‘ I worked on every single element and so when I saw it unveiled, it felt quite emotional.’ The neon sculptures on the facade of Tate Britain reference, Indian myths and customs, feminism, Bollywood and family life. Illuminated Hindu deities including Lakshimi and Ganesh, sit alongside animals and at the bottom right of the Tate Britain steps is a depiction of her dad’s ice cream van. ‘ I had a tough working class childhood,’ she explains, ‘I could have as many ice lollies as I liked but it was hard work. Sitting on the beach with dad, going round the streets till 8 o’clock in the evening, preparing the van every night after school when I should’ve been doing my homework. Making sandwiches, going to the cash and carry, the whole family was involved.’
As a child growing up in the north west, Burman was a regular visitor to Blackpool Illuminations,’ We’d go all the time – with relatives from India – I used to spend hours at the fun fair and go to the best chippy. When I first saw the neons (for the Tate installation) it sent me right back to my childhood. It’s made me want to go to Blackpool again, as soon as I’m allowed.’
See Chila Kumari Burman’s beautiful illuminations until 31 January 2021 – FREE – Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. And listen to the BBC Woman’s Hour episode HERE.(I’m after Chila, right at the end of the show).