Tate Britain, Millbank, Westminster, London SW1P 4RG

Chila Kumari Singh Burman: Tate Britain Winter Commission 2020

Tate Britain

14 November 2020 – 31 January 2021

Review by Piers Masterson

The statue of Britannia that sits atop Sidney Smith’s incomplete 1897 pediment of Tate Britain’s portico has been transformed by Chila Burman for the annual Winter Commission into an avatar of Kali, the voluptuous Indian god of death. Burman delivers some much needed jollity by converting the austere Imperial iconography of the Millbank frontage into a pantheon of her trademark warrior queens. Tate’s comparatively meagre sculptures of a lion and unicorn that flank Britannia are usurped by Burman’s neon figures of Lakshmi and Ganesh−the gods of plenitude and Diwali−who welcome us from the top of the stairs.

The words “remembering a brave new world” are emblazoned across the frieze in blue neon, prompting multiple potential readings. As a reference to Aldous Huxley’s novel, ‘Brave New World’ (1931), it suggests a certain nostalgia for the dubious stability of the book’s sterile, yet promiscuous Utopian society. Huxley wrote ‘Brave New World’ in reaction to a year of global crises and Burman draws parallels to our own contemporary chaos by having her Kali figure declare, ”I am in a mess”. Slogans are splattered by Burman across the whole work, recording what has been a tumultuous year for Tate with protests over redundancies and the response to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Mentioning Huxley recalls his connections with the Bloomsbury set and his contemporaries Wyndham Lewis and Rex Whistler, whose legacies of elitist and discriminatory attitudes still trouble the gallery, with Whister’s racist Tate murals publicly condemned by staff this month. Indefatigably, Burman places a self-portrait in a commanding position on Tate Britain’s façade, showing her in the middle of a jump kick in front of the first floor windows above the entrance that asserts her place within the canon of British art.

Burman’s family history is representative of the experience of the post-war Windrush generation and she proudly features biographical references in her work. Her father arrived first on his own in 1950s Liverpool, discovering not a ‘Brave New World’ but drudgery, disappointment and a period of brutal isolation before sending for Chila’s mother and elder siblings. For the Burman family, establishing their own ice cream business was a path to autonomy and, in the context of the relentless racism of 1970s British culture, an act of defiance. A version of Burman’s father’s ice cream van, in gorgeous neon, stands on the stairs as a monument to persistence.

The Bengal tiger, which was an emblem on the side of the ice cream van, is scaled up and dominates the stone balustrade. This splendid animal reminds me of ‘Tipoo’s Tiger’, the automaton created for the Sultan Tipu of Mysore, who was killed resisting British expansion. Looted by the East India Company, the wooden Tiger is now in the V&A collection in London. Tipu’s story along with that of Lakshmiba the warrior Queen, who was a leader of the First War of Indian Independence, featured in comic strips that Burman read as a child that are now fly-postered across the closed doors of the gallery entrance. It’s appropriate that Lakshmiba is given the central position in Burman’s neon pantheon, shown in the middle of her leap into battle; the defeat of her rebellion started the acceleration of the Victorian Imperial project and so sparked the Tate’s own establishment. The enrichment of British Institutions by the exploitation of former colonies is satirised by Burman as she places a customised ‘Tuk Tuk’ motor rickshaw inside the entrance foyer. The area normally houses the corporate functions that promote membership sales and woo corporate donors−the Alphas of Huxley’s world−but now Burman’s ‘Tuk Tuk’ celebrates instead the diverse toiling masses.

Rudyard Kipling also uses the phrase “Brave New World” in the final stanza of his 1919 poem ‘The Gods of the Copybook Margins’, where he bemoans the demise of the old world of Empire and its replacement with a new age of consumerism and marketing. Burman’s installation, titled ‘remembering a brave new world’, with its satirising of nostalgia and fascist utopias, and celebration of British south asian identities, affirms the artist’s agency to bring to light the nationalist past that is ingrained in the Tate building. The Burman ice cream van recalls shared communal pleasures and familial love that act as an antidote for society’s current ills.

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