Entering London’s Science Museum, before the turbines and rockets and light-up thingamajigs, there is an auto rickshaw: the humble A-to-B for many in India, also known as an auto, a three-wheeler, a Bajaj (after the company that manufactures them) or a tuk-tuk (after the noise they make when started up). The vehicle sits behind a rope. It is covered with dazzling stickers, its entrances blocked with clear perspex, passenger seats removed, and a makeshift shrine not quite visible on the auto’s floor. This, in a nutshell, is Chila Kumari Burman’s work. Found object? Check. Neon brights and scattered sparkles? Check. More than meets the eye – and there’s a lot that meets the eye – a story of memory and identity that you can feel, but not quite read? Check.
Born near Liverpool, England, to Punjabi-Hindu parents, Burman has spent her life using images to challenge a dominant culture that deprioritizes women, and especially women of color. In her seminal 1986 essay, There Have Always Been Great Blackwomen Artists (the title a rejoinder to Linda Nochlin’s 1971 Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?), she suggests that women of color have ‘suffered from having their work analyzed within a very narrow framework because [they are expected] to produce ‘ethnic’ work which reflects their ‘cultural origin’.’ So what, exactly, is Burman doing with decorated autos and embroidered elephants at the Science Museum, an institution founded as the British Raj took control of India?
"Untitled" (2017) by Chila Kumari Burman. Image courtesy of Laura Phelps.
The Illuminating India exhibition, which opened at the museum in 2017, celebrates 70 years of independence from Britain and 5,000 years of Indian scientific innovation, from the Suśrutasamhita (an ancient medical text) to a modern neonatal pouch costing 99% less than a traditional incubator. Burman was asked to produce a series of work in response to the exhibition. There is a wall of work directly outside Illuminating India, on the first floor; the ground-floor auto shrine is her largest piece, referencing a Bajaj model on display upstairs. Since the auto has become as much an icon of India as the red double-decker has of England, what does Burman’s appropriation signify here?
Though the objects on the auto’s floor are hard to see, a packet of henna and a tiffin tin can be made out. On the vehicle’s inside walls are stickers of deities, a flower mala, and fairy lights in the shape of ice lollies – a recurring motif for Burman, whose father was an ice cream man in their hometown of Bootle. Where in Britain ice cream is sold from a van, in India it might be sold from the back of an auto . . . one cannot help but wonder, having encountered such limited expectations as a British woman of Indian heritage, whether Burman’s most effective means of subversion was to parody those expectations. The auto shrine is India squared: more idols, more bling, more picture-postcard associations. In a 2015 interview, Burman said: ‘My work references the glitz, glamor and iconicity of Bollywood but from there the similarities depart – my work subverts and problematizes simplistic representations of identity and gender.’
"Autorickshaw" (2017) by Chila Kumari Burman. Image courtesy of the Science Museum.
This ‘problematizing’ is perhaps more clearly seen in the work on the museum’s first floor. Another auto appears here, this time in an iPad painting. A negative image of the vehicle floats amidst spray-painted vertical lines (graffiti is another of Burman’s recurring motifs; one year before There Have Always Been Great Blackwomen Artists, she designed the Southall Black Resistance Mural with Keith Piper). It recalls other work in which Burman plays with in-front/behind, such as the black and white photographs of her mother overlaid with British banknotes, or a self-portrait with the tag THIS IS NOT ME scrawled across it. The substance/surface question is also raised in Burman’s use of bindi to decorate many of the works adjacent to Illuminating India.
"Mokshapat" (2017) by Chila Kumari Burman. Image courtesy of Laura Phelps.
A stand-out piece here is Mokshapat, otherwise known as Snakes and Ladders, which originated in India and was designed to teach moral values to children. On Burman’s board, the words honesty, respect and pride are cut out of holographic paper; poverty, gambling and ruin wear glitter-dusted black. The ladders are unadorned, but the snakes – or the vices – are decked with diamante jewels. Female virtue lost on the roll of a die! Other intriguing works include three paintings of tools inspired by animals, depicted in the Suśrutasamhita and recreated by metalworkers in the early twentieth century. Burman’s wolf pliers, apparently suspended in mid-air, have a touch of Magritte’s pas-un-pipe about them, while lion and curlew tongs lie atop swirls of gold. There are also a number of digital inkjet prints: Raising the Roof is as flashy as a Macau casino but its repeated, kaleidoscope patterns suggest Punjabi mosque tiles, whose delineation is traditionally unmarked. Nothing on display here is as simple as it appears. Everything holds a mirror to something else.
"Wolf from the Susrutasamhita" (2017) by Chila Kumari Burman. Image courtesy of the Science Museum.
Adjacent to Illuminating India is another exhibition, this time of photographs from three distinct moments in the nation’s history: the uprising of 1857-58 that saw governance pass from the East India Company to the British crown; independence from Britain in 1947; and contemporary India. Each section is fascinating, although highlights are the painted photographic portraits (‘embellished reality’, as author Depali Dewan calls them), a uniquely Indian invention that later gained popularity among Orientalist collectors, and prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke White of India’s final steps towards freedom from colonial rule. Burman’s work picks up themes from all three sections, not least from the video art of Sohrab Hura whose Sweet Life (2017) flashes up monochrome fragments of his unusual family environment, a story told yet not quite told.
By inviting Chila Kumari Burman to comment on Illuminating India, the Science Museum has chosen to expand the reach of an already interesting exhibition (and perhaps to redress the balance of its having been curated by a white man). She is able, through her shimmering patchwork of sequins and slogans, to foreground several pertinent dichotomies – art/science; home/abroad; personal/political; perception/reality – without ever becoming didactic. In Britain’s current climate, in which even second and third generation immigrants are expected to justify their presence, Burman’s work is a catalyst for more nuanced thought.
Work by Chila Kumari Burman at Illuminating India, Science Museum, London. Image courtesy of Laura Phelps.
Illuminating India continues until 31 March 2018. Find out more about the exhibition here.
Getting there: The Science Museum is a short walk from South Kensington station on the London Underground (District, Circle or Piccadilly lines). Buses 14, 74, 414 and C1 also stop near the museum.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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