In ‘Auto-portrait: Stereotype Reinforces Mystery Izzat’ the artist has photographed herself staring enigmatically towards the camera, wearing an op-art patterned tee-shirt in front of an explosive ‘sun of the future’ motif. The image is overlaid with the text’s title rendered in a graffiti style. Izzat is an Indian word for honour, a term deployed more to police and control behaviour than to signify valour. This figure wearing the bindi, the forehead jewel traditionally signifying married Hindu women, dressed in contemporary street style, mixes signals and owns the mystery of identity as opposed to being captured by it. Here, as elsewhere in Burman’s work, stereotypes are destabilised by her embrace of the aesthetic. The exhibition explores this rubric of pleasure, worldliness, and a brand of affirmative anti-transcendence, all at play in her rebellious in-between ‘Punk Punjabi’.
Burman was born in Liverpool to a working-class immigrant Punjabi Hindu family. The multiple overlaying of identities are prominent in her work, leading to her association with the Black Arts Movement in Britain. Her study of art began at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University), after which she moved to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Many of the earlier prints in this exhibition, as well as source materials for later work, employ themes attached to growing up in the North of England.
The eighty-five prints assembled in this exhibition, curated by Miguel Amado (director at Cork Printmakers), present a survey multiple periods, from the late 1970s to 2019. They include a series of contemporary works such as ‘It’s True… Men Really Do Fancy Themselves’ (2019), made in Ireland in the lead-up to Punk Punjabi Prints. These ‘Irish’ works convey a sense of immediacy with their collaged snippets from local papers, cuttings of articles on tidy-towns, Brexit and the Irish border question. Hung salon style, the exhibition compliments Burman’s prints with its generous presentation format. The appropriation and use of imagery is direct; ‘Doing Shotokan in Front of My Finsbury Park Mural with Magic’ (2019) captures combativeness in three sequential images of the artist practicing self-defence. The gesture is repeated in ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, an appropriated section from an Amar Chitra Katha comic strip depicting a sword-wielding Rani, queen of the district of Jhansi, valiantly leading an uprising against the British Raj in 1857.
Print signifies here. Considered a democratic medium, it seems senseless to speak of the ‘original’ print, all copies being equal. Burman problematises this reading of the multiple with her addition of ‘hand embellishments’ – bindis or the accessories of ‘girlhood’ (sequins, transfers, candy-coloured tat and tack) applied to the surface of the print. Mass-produced, disposable and ‘cheap’, their signification is caught in a tension between affirmation and commodification. Highlights are applied for decorative emphasis, as in the series of ‘Auto-Portraits’, a proliferation to form an explosive riot of colour and sparkle there, such as in ‘Swallow Me Now’ (2019). Being both diminutive and abundantly applied allows the bindi to do some balancing work at the level of medium, fixing the prints under both the aspect of multiple and singular, returning singularity through the mass-produced.
A selection of more minimal, sparse works in the form of etchings, such as ‘Riot’ (1981), ‘Militant Women’ (1982) and ‘Grid Slips’ (1982), punctuate the show. They act as points of contrast and warn the viewer not to be fooled by the glittery, frothy surfaces – the intention behind the work is political. ‘Peace and Love, Brothers, Sisters, and Little Children’ (1982) is a triptych of a distressed mother with her baby, a man sitting on a chair with legs propped up in front of a derelict site and a young girl taking a drag from a cigarette. All are shot with the gaze and sensibility of the social realist photographer. Burman’s composition of these images into a triptych with a large painterly splash of red defiantly complicates their sources (a 1970s American publication of photo-journalism from the underground press) and serves as a counterpoint to the ‘Peace and Love’ of the title.
‘Me Dad in Front of His Van, 38 Hertford Road, Bootle, Merseyside, 1960s’ (2019) is a photograph of the artist’s father and his ice cream van overlaid with a series of enlarged £10 notes. She uses the same technique with a portrait of her mother in ‘Late Mommy Ji’ (2019). The additions reflect an unsentimental stance that grounds the image as something more complex and full, acknowledging the role money plays in family dynamics. ‘Social reality’ here is not unmediated, as in documentary-style social realism, but a process of mediation through layering.
‘Dada and the Punjabi Princess’ (2019) is a video that presents contemporary identity politics through a hallucinatory group of visual graphics, set to a popish, drum-and-bass heavy, electronic soundtrack. Dancing costumed women emerge in slow motion leaving a visual echo trail of their movements, signalling at times the many armed Hindu warrior goddess Kali. Samarkan font text appears intermittently: ‘Multiculturalism is coming unstuck’, ‘Is news fake or real?’, ‘Don’t believe the hypermarket’. The video is kaleidoscopic, comic book, pop art and super kitsch in style. The incongruous character here is the suited woman, situated in the centre foreground in black and white. She does not dance, looks dejected and on the verge of crying and then surprisingly bursts into laughter – a kind of performance of the schizophrenic nature of neo-liberal ‘global’ subjectivity.
Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Punk Punjabi Prints: A Suitcase of Etchings, from Reason to Madness, organised by Cork Printmakers, was at Lavit Gallery, Cork, Ireland, 19 September – 12 October 2019
Catherine Harty is an artist and art writer. John Thompson is an artist, art writer and PhD researcher at University College Cork. They are co-curators of The Guesthouse Project in Cork, Ireland.