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Queen Britannia is a Mess and Kali Reigns Supreme at Tate Britain

Photography: (c) Tate (John Humphreys).

By Hassan Vawda and Khaled Sofian

Queen Britannia is ‘a mess'[1] and Kali reigns supreme! The 123 year-old facade of Tate Britain, with its towering steps, white textures and heroic pillars, a museum claiming to contain ‘the heart of British art’,[2] has been mashed up with infinite colours and lights by the Punjabi Liverpudlian artist, Chila Kumari Singh Burman.

Beneath the colours and lights is a network of images that make up Burman’s vision: the power of women tearing up patriarchy, deep memories of her childhood and experiences of ‘beyond two cultures’.[3] Her family’s ice-cream van is stationed on the regal museum steps reading, ‘we are here coz you were there’, with freedom fighter Lakshmibai glowing nearby and the Rani of Jhansi standing strong. Even at 10pm on a rainy day during lockdown, pilgrims and passersby can be seen hypnotised by the warm, nourishing, dazzling glows of ‘Remembering a Brave New World’.

Burman’s playfulness pumps liberation into the Art monument on the Thames. Her legacy stakes a claim at social action. For the first time, this ‘Christmas-is-coming’ signifier, the Winter Commission, opened on Diwali. Expressing worlds, histories and identities that speak across generations. To be your whole self, as an artist, but also speaking to the post-colonial diasporas who find themselves in the crushing narratives of ‘Westernese‘,[4] pushed to the margins, forced to compromise, change, and assimilate. Your whole self, just as her great father did by placing a fierce tiger on top of his ice-cream truck in the ’60s, like the Tipu Sultan of Bootle.

Who are we to speak? Embodying the many atomised, fragmented, third-generation South Asian experiences, we look to Chila as a true trailblazer within the narratives of art in Britain. What took so long for such an artist to be given a bold space within an institution that is the ‘cultural memory’[5] of Britain? There is much to say around the curatorial cultures that have become the versed, comfortable, and established ways of practice and function in defining what art is important to Britain. It is only in the last few years that Tate Britain have had solo shows by artists outside dominant cultures, with more being scheduled to open. But how diverse are the skill sets and experiences of the many curatorial teams in our national galleries dedicated to ‘British’ art?

There are no and have been no solo shows of a South Asian artist at Tate Britain. There is a clamour for space in our public art galleries that tries to talk to national identities, with an often unrepresentative cohort of gatekeepers historically drawn from a rigid, slowly opening approach to filtering what is important via what is presumed economically sustainable. With all the repeated foregrounding of race and representation, approaches to art history continue to self-refer to wider representation and more diverse artists, yet what is the narrative being drawn on in British Art History for this to occur?

Photography: (c) Tate (John Humphreys).

‘The Other Story’ is often an overused reference point to contextualise any Black or Brown artists of the 1970s or 1980s. Indeed, an incredibly important show, but it is the dominant culture of curatorial-group-thinks-dead-horse of trying to find radical context in bringing cultural diversity to British Art History. It is an important show but Chila Kumari Singh Burman was not included, clearly excluding as much (or more) as it included. The framing of diaspora art by our institutions is entrenched in fragmentation by historic exclusion or in recent decades, through narrow vantage points to create neat narratives that are manageable for a cross-generational culture of art historians who never studied anything outside the canon in their formative years.

It is powerful to see Burman’s work shine and be given the institutional resourcing for her vision to be realised. It will be remembered as a historic piece, not just as one of the few, if not only major institutionally supported artwork to be open and visible during the second national lockdown, but also perhaps the most major platform given to an artist of South Asian diaspora at Tate Britain. Its platform represents the best changes and opening of visions towards inclusive futures happening in our national art institutions, in the selection practices of curatorial cultures of British Art. It should be celebrated, but perhaps more important to say, it’s about damn time Queen Britannia was presented as a mess and Kali reigned supreme. Long may it continue and not be fragmented as a pat on the back for inclusive cultures, but a symbol of the power of the excellence of artists who have historically been on the outside of the elite fiefdom of British Art. Artists like Chila Kumari Singh Burman, who has, and continues to knock down that door and rebuild, reconstruct, and re-orientate ‘culture’ as it should.

[1] Burman, C. (2020) ‘a mess’ in ‘Remembering a Brave New World,’ Tate Britain Winter Commission. 

[2] Tait, S. (2003) ‘the heart of British art’ in ‘Tate finds the heart in British art ’, The Times, UK, 15 September.

[3] Nead, L (1995) ‘Beyond two cultures’ in ‘Chila Kumari Burman: Beyond Two Cultures,’ Kala Press.

[4] ‘Westernese’: a system of significance that constructs ‘the West’ as the future for ‘the Rest’ Sayyid, S & Hesse, B. (2002).

[5] Bourdieu, P (1986) ‘Cultural Memory’ in ‘A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,’ Harvard University Press.

Biographies

Hassan Vawda is a researcher exploring community practice, religion, secularism and art institution. A 2017 Aziz Foundation scholar and is currently undertaking an AHRC funded doctoral research project.

Khaled Sofian is a current Aziz Foundation Scholar exploring ‘race,’ diaspora and the connections between colonial cultures across the globe and our local, everyday life here in contemporary Britain.