Throughout 2009, Chila Kumari Burman, Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the University of East London, worked with social science students and staff to explore autobiographical materials and ideas visually, drawing on students’ academic work, personal histories, and social and political understandings.
Image by Reshma Shikdar
Chila also worked with UEL’s Centre for Narrative Research on a research project, ‘You Are Here’: East London Self-Portraits. The project investigated visual and verbal self-representations across a range of East London environments. The exhibition Visual Autobiographies, at the Rich Mix Gallery in East London, March-May 2010, and from May at UEL, displays a selection of the images produced by students and research participants during this year of collaborative work, alongside work produced by Chila during her residency.
Images (from left) by Aminur Rahman, Roisin Lythgoe Curley and Sarah Lythgoe, Mukesh Madhuparia. For more images, and an account of the exhibition, please see Visual Autobiographies, the catalogue for the exhibition.
For over 20 years, Chila Burman has worked experimentally across print, paint, photographic and mixed media, predominantly autobiographically, exploring the construction of classed, gendered, sexualised and ‘raced’ subjectivities, personal and family memories, and the physicality and pleasures of visual materials. Burman draws on fine art and popular-cultural images, and generates powerful pictures of current Asian femininities. In the tradition of graphic political satire, Burman articulates a critical position within contemporary postcolonial, consumption-saturated Britain. Her work documents her history as a leading figure among UK Black and Asian artists, but also functions as a guide to her more particular and personal concerns.
Chila Burman’s Work in Her Own Words
All images by Chila unless otherwise noted. See Chila's photo gallery.
28 POSITIONS IN 34 YEARS is a self-portrait mixed media painting. It was executed by painting over 28 black and white photographs of myself in a range of different guises: western, Indian, 60s, punk, pop icon, and the Goddess Kali. Non-traditional art materials, for instance, fluorescent poster paints, felt tips and crayons, have been used in this piece. The work has also been made into a much larger 6ft x 8ftpiece, stretching and shrinking my faces, manipulating image and medium by using a laser copier and collaging and composing the faces very tightly.
These self-portraits position the construction of racial and sexual identity as a fluid process, crafted within representation. My manipulation of the photographic image questions the idea of the photograph as a document of empirical reality that reveals 'an image of myself.’ My self-portrait works involve a continual exploration of my dual cultural identity, and of the construction of identities other than my own. They work experimentally with the notions of ‘photographer’ and ‘subject,’ and combine photography with elements of painting and installation. Such work relates well to the Narrative Practice Masters Module, focuses on the interrogation of the processes of self-identity.
This piece is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and has been used as an image in and on the cover of several academic publications.
In my print A MOMENT TO MYSELF AND PLAYTHINGS, I used a very old A4 laser copier and scanned onto acetate, using an intense saturation of colour, a collection of dazzling hair pieces/extensions, Indian kitsch jewellery, bindis, glass bangles, sequinned bras, Mexican Day of the Dead artefacts, Brazilian bikinis, yellow fabrics, fresh flowers and cheap plastic flowers. A range of 30 to 40 A4 prints were made and then assembled into a grid -style wall installation. This work has also been photographed digitally and made into an A0 size inkjet print on handmade etching paper. This process is perfect to use with year 2 students on the ‘Race’ and Ethnicity module as it deals with complexities of cultural identity and comments on the relationship between popular/mass culture and high art thinking.
This work has been purchased by the Arts Council and is also on the cover of their Collections brochure.
PUNJABI ROCKERS is a mixed media collage which has printed onto canvas and inkjet paper and has also been made into a photographic cibachrome print in various size dimensions. It is made up of eight A4 colour photocopies that include images of Bollywood stars, creatures from religious and cinematic myth, Indian firework packaging, fridge poetry magnets, dress magnets, Indian stickers, hair ribbons, buttons, Indian comics, plastic wires,earrings, badges with text,and my own cycling proficiency badge. The collage was then drawn over with felt tips and painted with glitter before being scanned. This process will work well with the East London Lives research project as it allows people to work creatively with accessible and engaging ephemera that nevertheless carry important traces of contemporary cultural identities.
Punjabi Rockers is in the British Council collection and toured to Syria in 2005.
My work THIS IS NOT ME was made using a black and white photograph of myself, turned into eight A3 colour laser copies which were then mounted together to make one large face and sprayed, graffiti style, with red car spray paint. Introduction to Counselling Students may find work of this kind a useful stimulus to their visual diary work in which I shall introduce them to Zen drawing and textual graffiti painting, and will make connections between visual practice and inner aspects of the self.
This work is about to be published in a book on contemporary painting, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, and was used as the image on the invitation for a Victoria and Albert Museum symposium, ‘Should art…be authentic?’ in 2006.
You can find the artist’s other work on her website found here
Residency At UEL: Chila's statement
The general theme of my residency at University of East London is the visual exploration of autobiographical material, in teaching and research. The schedule runs across 10 months and two academic years, enabling me to work with different staff and programmes, and with students across years and modules.
My art practice has developed over two decades in a broad span of media, including prints, collage, mixed media paint and photography. Across these media, my practice explores my autobiographical construction within shifting formations of class, gender and ethnicities in the postcolonial context of contemporary Britain. I am interested in cultural selves as unstable sets of identifications rather than identities, as Stuart Hall has described them. My work takes a critical, even confrontational stance towards mainstream forms of representation. Through my satirical and excessive juxtapositions of them I make use of the undermining possibilities Homi Bhabha has pointed to within ‘hybrid’ representations. I have been interested throughout my career in the pleasures and opportunities presented, as well as the constraints exerted, by popular cultural images of femininity. My work thus explores in visual practice some of the dualities discussed theoretically by Angela McRobbie. My practice also draws more intimately on family constellations, individual psychic patterns, and their specific histories and memories. All these concerns are integral to the research and teaching context of the UEL programmes with which I will work.
My approach in my own work and in workshop settings with others is to focus on artistic process throughout, rather than technique or on ‘finished’ images. I will encourage students and research participants to explore forms of visual production that play with spontaneous, gestural mark marking, exploiting apparent randomness and the unplanned meanings that emerge from it. I use everyday technologies - felt tips, glue, poster paint – as well as unconventional ‘non-artistic’ materials such as glitter, gold and silver gel pens, bindis and jewellery: articles of everyday excess. I demystify the technologies of screenprinting and even photocopying by working directly onto screens, copying objects, and altering copies. I also incorporate found and created text into many images. Drawing on a long history of radical art, from Dada to punk, I use collage to open up conceptual and material possibilities, and then to focus these possibilities into a contained and owned, but still multilayered and polysemic, visual product.
My interest throughout the residency will be in exploring psychological and social theory through my practice, as well as developing theoretical understanding of my and others’ visual work. In the workshop sessions based at UEL, visual practice will be brought into dialogue throughout with the theoretical debates explored in parallel in module lectures and seminars. I plan to emphasise specific techniques I have used in my work that have a particular fit with the different module groups with whom I will be working. Throughout, I will draw on my own extensive autobiographical work (1989-present) to facilitate students’ own use of autobiographical visions.
Work with year 2 Psychosocial Studies students on the Race and Ethnicities module, through the means of a visual practice workshop running alongside module seminar groups, with rotating membership from the module. The workshop invited students to reflect on social constructions of ‘race’ and ethnicity, and how these fluid identities are produced through a variety of visual and textual strategies. The workshops were integrated with the rest of the module via commentaries on and criticisms of the visual popular media materials that form a large percentage of course. I was experimenting with collage to encourage students to understand that the process of creating is as important as product. Students were invited to bring in self-portraits, family portraits, personal artefacts and images from their family home or birthplace. They scanned paraphernalia from their own collections of objects – for instance mobile phones, handbags, clothing, watches, CDs, jewellery, key rings – directly onto a copier. These differing elements will be photocopied, composed into collages, and then painted or ‘filled in’ with colour and unorthodox materials such as glitter glue and bindis. From these A4 images we will create a larger, mural installation.
Image by Flora Ylla Bogou
Regular contributions to and one 3-hour session as visiting presenter on the Narrative Practice Masters module (Sociology), followed by work with a small group of students (up to 5) using visual methods in their assignment. This module addresses a variety of approaches to social research; I presented my own autobiographical work as a form of ongoing visual ‘action research’ and autoethnography. In the workshops, I asked students to examine through visual techniques the construction of selves and their meanings, and how these change over time and location. I encouraged students to use digital cameras – including low-resolution phone cameras – to produce self-portraits and to reproduce self-images; and to extend this work to their assignment research projects with research participants if appropriate. The images will be turned into monochrome copies and then altered by stretching, shrinking, colouring, texturing and collage using paint, crayons, colouring pencils, and spray paint and pens for writing. These images will then be assembled into portrait or self-portrait grids.
Planning and research with staff from UEL’s Centre for Narrative Research on the ‘East London Lives’ research project. This project will produce research ‘portraits:’ interviews addressing the tectonics of ‘place,’ ‘identity’ and ‘history’, accompanied by self-generated visual autobiographies. I will work with research participants to make life size self-portraits that ‘fill in’ an outline of the body, an approach I have used many times with widely varying workshop groups. We will use digital cameras, scanning and, photocopying to reproduce and collage images from personal archive materials, popular culture and found objects. These life size body ‘portraits’ will be gathered across a culturally diverse and sometimes conflicted geographical west-east route through Spitalfields, from a youth group young arts professionals living in the area, and a group for older people meeting in a community centre. A parallel ESRC small grant application is being prepared but the research will be conducted independent of the application’s result.
Demolish Serious Culture
September 2009-January 2010
Work, again with a rotating workshop group of Introduction to Counselling students (Psychosocial Studies programme, year 2), facilitating their use of a visual ‘diary’ to extend the written journals they keep during this module. In this module I will draw on the collage, painting and drawing modalities used earlier in the year, but will also deploy drawing in particular as a critical and creative medium that channels unconscious and conscious thought. I will introduce students to the ‘Zen and the Art of Drawing’ process, which challenges conventions of drawing as technique and representation and presents it instead as an embodied process with connections to inner parts of the self. My work ‘This is not me’ is an instance of such uses of ‘drawing,’ in this case of a textual, graffiti kind.
Work with Life Histories year 3 students (Sociology programme), allowing them to develop visual aspects of the autobiographical materials they gather for their assignment. My aim in this module will be to deploy the techniques of self-construction and reconstruction described above, but also more generally to demystify and enable art processes. I will encourage creative drawing using specialist printmaking techniques I have developed, that involve drawing with water-based pastels directly onto silkscreens, and printing with screenprinting extender base to generate monoprints. My interest in developing these techniques has been to create a culturally diverse art practice that includes elements from fine art, popular culture and fashion. The techniques will allow students to use image and text freely and innovatively to create visual ideas as prints on paper and cloth.
Image by Siyanda Ndlovu
Continuing work on East London Lives; preparation of exhibition, catalogue and paper. 1 day a week. Exhibition to open in March and run through to June.
Chila's Dads Ice-Cream Van on Freshfield Beach Merseyside