Meet Chila Kumari Burman: the artist behind the iconic Covent Garden Tiger

“We have to stay awake and alert because these are crazy times,” says artist Chila Kumari Burman, as she shows me around the extravagance of illuminated neon lights she has decorated in the Covent Garden market.

Its fantastic dream land, do you see words in the rainbows? – a maximalist collision of flamingos, Bollywood movie posters, popsicles, colonial history and gods – has the same powerful features of its installation outside Tate Britain during lockdown, a rare moment of joy during the pandemic.

Resplendent in a silver Paul Smith biker jacket, black leggings and a glittering red sequin t-shirt, Burman, 63, feels like someone close to being a superstar as she stands among his sculptures bright, bright colors and upbeat messages, all inspired by her fascination with cultural identities, feminism, mythology, her Liverpudlian upbringing and her Hindu Punjabi heritage.

It’s quite the London takeover – she’s also exhibiting at Paradise Row Gallery in Mayfair and has presented two pieces at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. She is also one of a handful of artists who have been invited to submit a limited edition print for auction at Sotheby’s to raise awareness of environmental damage at the upcoming United Nations climate change conference, Cop26. And she even recently learned that one of her works, Bengal Tiger Van, was in the spotlight in Rishi Sunak’s office.

“Since the Tate thing, my profile went through the ceiling,” she beams, “I smashed the glass ceiling. And now it’s like so much in demand. I turn on my phone and it’s like, oh my god. People treat me like a different person now.

Do you see words in the rainbows? in Covent Garden

/ James Veysey / Shutterstock

She admits that she is “a little” pissed off that fame has been slow to come, when she’s been working as an artist for so long. “This is why we are talking about systemic racism. This is why we are talking about anti-feminism. Why did the Tate take so long to commission me? Well, not just them… I had a lot of exhibitions in the 1980s and 1990s because the art world recognized black and Asian artists then. Then all of a sudden it was like that. It was almost as if some galleries were saying, “Well, we’ve all done you. So we all left and did our own thing.

Burman, who was born in Bootle, Merseyside to Punjabi parents, draws inspiration from her youth. Her father sold ice cream on Freshfield Beach for 30 years in a van decorated with a large Bengal tiger figurine. The cones and this cat would become main motifs in what she describes as her “bling-up but incredibly sharp” multimedia work, spanning etchings, printing, collage, painting, sculpture and photography. .

Her parents agreed that she could leave home to study art at Leeds Polytechnic and then the Slade School of Art, a move deemed controversial by the local Punjabi community. “They were, like, gasping! You let your daughter go to Leeds – hop! – you let your daughter go to London. And my dad said, “She walks the world like a man. My mother and father are responsible for my release. I had to get out of the house anyway, ”she continues,“ because they were trying to marry me. It wasn’t until I got to 27 that they all said, “You’re on the shelf, nobody’s going to want you.” Great!’

Takeover of Tate Britain by the Burmese

/ Mike Marsland / WireImage

After graduating from the Slade in 1982, Burman obtained a residency at the Hornsey School of Art. What followed were decades of “exploring the experiences and aesthetics of Asian femininity,” working largely – but not entirely – unnoticed at the intersection of feminism, race and gender. activism as she funded her art with Greater London Council money by working as an Artist in Residence. in schools. Moving in a circle with artists such as Eddie Chambers, Claudette Johnson, Marlene Smith and Keith Piper, she was a key member of the British black arts movement in the 1980s and one of the first South Asian women to make music. political art in the UK. Around this time, she co-founded an Asian feminist magazine published in six languages ​​called Mukti. Dozens of exhibitions followed and slowly Burman began to exhibit internationally. But it’s fair to say that his defining moment was slower than expected.

“It is true that women and artists of color have been neglected for too long in commercial galleries and in museum exhibits,” says Charlotte Appleyard, director of development at the Royal Academy. “But that changes very quickly. There is still a lot of work to be done but you can see a palpable change. It’s exciting. ‘

In 2018, Burman received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts in London for his impact and recognized legacy as a British and international artist, and was subsequently invited to become a member of the exclusive Art Workers Guild. She regrets never having had children, but she “never found the right man … and would not have had children for fun.” I think a dad has to be super cool, and I just haven’t found the right one. ‘ She still lives in her Manor House apartment, swims every day and loves Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express restaurant: “It’s fantastic, like my mother’s home cooking”.

A tiger from his Tate Britain installation

/ Mike Marsland / WireImage

She admires the work of Louise Bourgeois: “She’s so cool. And I also love how she came to be known much later in life… but you know it’s the thing now ”. Late fame “feels good,” says Burman. “You can handle things more than before, you get inside yourself. “

This Saturday night, I visit Burman at her studio in Hackney, which is surrounded by dilapidated towers and filled with bindis, stickers, knick-knacks, her “junk treasures” as she calls them. Over the chai and cookies, she says she is “buzzing” with the Covent Garden show and optimistic for the future. “After 40 years of hard work, it’s great to see my popularity soar. While it’s nice to finally be recognized more publicly, what I’ve found most rewarding about my recent site-specific pieces is to bring a sense of joy and positivity into people’s lives. It has been such a difficult time for all of us and being able to make an uplifting impact is what I appreciate the most.

It is time for the diversity of British artists to be represented by our galleries, there is an imbalance and it must be remedied

But in the end, the discussions turn to gallery representation. Burman’s success begins to exceed its ability to single-handedly manage all of the directors involved in the sale and marketing of its work. “I’m late for the gallery show, of course I am,” she says. “I think it is time for the diversity of British artists to be represented by our galleries, there is an imbalance and it needs to be corrected.”

Do you see any words in Chila Kumari Burman’s rainbows? ‘ is in Covent Garden until the end of October. Her work is at the Paradise Row Gallery until October 29 (

About Margaret L. Portillo

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