Fun, funny and fiercely feminist— Chila Kumari Singh Burman embodies all these qualities. Born in 1957 to a Punjabi family that migrated to Liverpool, she has emerged as a vital voice challenging the predominantly white and male art world in Britain. A founding member of the Black Arts Movement in the 1980s, she led protests, wrote papers, presented exhibitions and created deeply personal, playful and politically charged collages, prints and paintings that reflected her unique experiences as a woman and artist of colour.
Of late, Singh is being celebrated for her captivating neon-lit sculptures and installations, including the ones that graced the Tate Britain facade during the lockdown, infusing a sense of joy into a sombre period. In recognition of her contributions to the visual arts, she was appointed as a Member of the British Empire (MBE) on the Queen’s Birthday in 2022, a title she openly questions and subverts in her exhibition Merseyside Burman Empire at FACT Liverpool. In an interview with Lounge, she talks about what she does best: using her platform to ignite essential conversations about women, race and colonialism.
I am what they call a Liverpudlian, born and raised in the gritty northern town of Liverpool, where the River Mersey flows. Let’s not forget that Liverpool’s docks were once hubs of the despicable slave trade back in the 18th century. So, I took the MBE, that so-called honour from the Queen, and turned it on its head. I questioned the whole idea of the Empire and put myself and my city at the centre of it all. I wanted to honour the hardworking immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean who poured their blood, sweat and tears to build this country. If my dad were alive today, I bet he’d be saying “Oi, Queenie, you owe us big time ‘cause we damn well built this place up!”
I was raised in a loud Indian household where we only spoke Punjabi. My dad rocked the ice cream-selling business while my mom held fort as a homemaker. But more than anything else, my parents were entertainers, the kind of folk who could gather a crowd and have them rolling on the floor with laughter. And boy, were they obsessed with Hindi movies, music, comics and fashion! That passion seeped right into my soul.
So, when it came to designing this exhibition, I wanted the feeling of stepping into a living room—my living room to be specific. From the wallpaper featuring my favourite female film characters, to the tuk-tuk showcasing a collection of my art films, and even the neon signs and installation depicting the majestic Royal Bengal tiger that used to grace my dad’s ice cream van, I wanted to create a cosy space for visitors to be enveloped by the pop culture that shaped my upbringing as a British-born South Asian.
Not just South Asian, all artists of colour had a difficult time carving a career in the 1980s. Britain was going through its period of transition, and so were we. We weren’t about to sit back and accept being overlooked. We banded together and demanded our rightful place in the art world. It was like creating our own support system, taking care of each other and making damn sure that the art world couldn’t ignore us any longer.
We dubbed it the Black Arts Movement because, perhaps because it had that same rebellious spirit as the Impressionist or Surrealist movements. Black was a political term of resistance, and represented all artists of colour. We’d gather on Roman Road in London, where Indian restaurants lined the streets to discuss, share ideas and write powerful statements as a united front.
I wrote a paper titled “There Have Always Been Great Black Women Artists” as a means to take action and rewrite art history. Many of us, including Marlene Smith, Keith Piper, Ashra Sharma, Claudette Johnson, Roshini Kempadoo, Eddie Chambers, and others, fought tooth and nail for National Arts Council funding and commissions. We pushed them to recognise our worth, to buy our artworks and to commission us for projects. We put pressure on Tate and other institutions that had turned a blind eye to us for far too long. In a nutshell, we basically got a lot of white people to feel guilty.
Many of us, as artists involved in the movement, feel that not much has changed over the past two decades. In the ‘90s, there was a glimmer of hope as our presence and contributions started gaining some visibility. However, it often felt like a superficial acknowledgment, as if the powers that be were merely checking off a box and then promptly forgetting about us.
It is only in recent years, especially following the wake of the covid-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, that we have started to witness a revival of interest and recognition. Nowadays, a lot more students are reading and writing dissertations on our history and generation of artists. Still, we need to keep pushing, demanding and advocating for our rightful place in the art world.
My advice to artists is to be true to yourself. Be kind to your fellow artists. Work hard and play hard. Swim regularly. And smash the patriarchy!
'Merseyside Burman Empire' is on view at FACT Liverpool until 27 August 2023
Gautami Reddy is a Delhi-based culture writer, who explores the realms of art, design, architecture, and technology.