“If you look at the turmoil in the world today, whether it’s climate change, the MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter, there is so much to say that you wonder where to begin,” says iconic British artist, ChilaKumari Singh Burman.
She is exhibiting at the Lavit Gallery on September 19 in partnership with Cork Printmakers and curated by its director, Miguel Amado.
Burman, born in Liverpool to Indian parents, may feel overwhelmed by the state of the world but she has always addressed pertinent issues in her art.
A leading figure in the British Black Art movement in the 1980s, she has a first-class honours degree in art from Leeds Polytechnic and also attended the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art for her master’s degree.
Her work, held in the some of the world’s greatest art collections including the Tate, is made up of printmaking creations, collage, film and photography. It deals with race, feminism and activism.
London-based Burman has also written extensively on these subjects.
The Lavit Gallery exhibition, entitled ‘Punk Punjabi Prints: A Suitcase of Etchings, from Reason to Madness’, is Burman’s first in Ireland. At the gallery, she will take part in a panel discussion as part of Culture Night on Friday.
The exhibition includes a screen print and collage piece entitled‘Convenience, Not Love’.
Created in the 1990s, it suggests marriages of convenience with its depiction of passports including a British one with barbed wire on it, conveying restrictions and hostility.
“Things haven’t really changed because (the authorities) still restrict the intake of people from former colonies,” she says.
The artwork also depicts former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, dressed as John Bull with a speech bubble expressing her fears of the country being “swamped by people with a different culture” reproduced. Thatcher made the polarising comment while she was in opposition in 1978.
The UK’s current polarising issue is exercising Burman. “Brexit will affect the arts and also people from working-class backgrounds. The people who are going to gain from it are the very well-to-do who don’t have to worry about where their next penny is coming from.”
Burman relates how her father, a Punjabi Hindu, came to the UK in the 1950s “full of hopes and promises that it would be a beautiful place, paved with gold. Obviously, it didn’t turn out like that. But he just got on with things.”
After a few months, Burman’s father had saved enough money to bring his wife and two children to Liverpool where he worked for a while at Dunlops. He later worked in the ice-cream trade. What didBurman’s parents think of their youngest daughter studying art?
“They didn’t really know what I was doing because they had never been to school.
The one bone of contention between Burman and her parents was that they wanted her to marry. “In Asian families, girls must settle down by their twenties. My parents said I was on the shelf at 27.”
But they came around and allowed their daughter to lead her own life. She never married. “I think I’m married to my artwork.”
Because of her background, Burman was well equipped to critically examine the situation of South Asian women through herself, her parents and grandparents.
“There are still a lot of stereotypes associated with us. We’re not supposed to be smart. You don’t see many South Asian women in film or TV or the art world in the West.”