“I use ornaments, but with a message”: Chila Burman brings her stunning Punjabi neon extravaganza to the windows of Covent Garden


Do You See Rainbow Words from Chila Burman (2021). Installation view
Courtesy of Louisa Buck

Chila Burman’s festive transformation of the Tate Britain facade into a neon-clad Punjabi Pop party was a beacon of hope for many in the dark days of lockdown at the end of last year and the start of it . Crowds gathered on the steps of the museum every evening just to bask in its exuberant abundance of bright colors and to hope for better days. It was so popular that the Tate extended the commission until the end of February.

Now, with more freedom of movement, at least for the time being, Burman has wielded its maximalist magic on Covent Garden, the complex of shops and restaurants occupying London’s historic former fruit and veg market halls in the heart of London’s West End. capital city. And it is an equally uplifting experience. Inside and out, on pillars, porticoes and facades, are a plethora of illuminated beasts, along with uplifting slogans and densely glued vinyl panels. In this glorious parallel universe, bindis, flowers, wrappers, i-Pad designs and a pantheon of Hindu goddesses and warrior queens merge and coexist. Burma’s most ambitious installation to date, this Covent Garden extravaganza will remain in place until the end of October.

Do You See Rainbow Words from Chila Burman (2021).
Courtesy of Louisa Buck

In recognition of all the surrounding retail signs, Burman has increased the amount of text, both printed and illuminated, in his work. “Do you see any words in the rainbows? Written in neon purple greets visitors in the South Lobby, while “Punjabi Rocker”, “Carnival of Feminists” and “Valiant Queens Rule” are among the mixed messages in Burman’s visual assortment.

The centerpiece inside the main hall is a giant hanging octagon covered in kaleidoscopic and neon patterns which in turn support a hanging neon heart that appears to have been scrawled with colored light. Then there are the huge creatures drawn in multicolored neon lights: a dragon, a bull, peacocks and a magnificent monkey.

But the piece de resistance is the giant neon white tiger guarding the entrance to Piazza Nord. This fat cat is the latest incarnation of Burman’s trademark tribute to the neon tiger that his Punjabi immigrant father installed on the roof of his ice cream van in Bootle in the 1960s.

Chila Burman in front of Do You See Words In Rainbow (2021).
Courtesy of Louisa Buck

“My father was seriously ahead of his time. He was a proud Punjabi, everyone had Batman or Robin on their van, but he had a Bengal tiger, ”says Burman. as if it was going to eat you alive, ”adds the artist.

Competition with the advertising, signage and storefronts of the sprawling Covent Garden site posed various challenges for the stand-alone facade of Tate Britain. But Burman’s bold vision does more than hold its place in a business environment she describes as “eclectic and crazy.”

A rigorous formal eye underlies its excess of visual overload and, in the abundance of color and decoration, messages of inclusiveness and empowerment of women. All of this is a testament to Burman’s role as an important member of the British black art movement in the 1980s and one of the first South Asian women to make political art in the UK. As she says: “I use the adornment, but with a message. This latest politically astute extravaganza is just the tonic for our weary capital as the summer light fades and the nights begin to take shape.


About Bernice D. Brewer

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