The Tate Winter Commission: A swirling celebration of colour and light

Combining Hindu mythology, Bollywood references and family memories, Dr Chila Kumari Singh Burman has transformed Tate Britain’s riverside façade into a beacon of hope for their latest Winter Commission.

The exhibition, titled ‘remembering a brave new world’, is the fourth Tate Winter Commission, a series in which artists exhibit their work on the face on the gallery. 

Chila, an iconic British artist who was a significant figure in the Black British Art movement of the 1980s, is known for her work across printmaking, painting, collage and photography.

Inspired by her Punjabi heritage, she has always fought to redefine the stereotypes of South Asian women in art, this time enriching the exterior of the Tate with Hindu deities and Bollywood posters.

BRAVE NEW WORLD: Chila’s art has a variety of influences and inspirations

Chila said: “The last Winter Commission, and quite a lot of stuff in the Tate, doesn’t reflect South Asian culture so I saw the opportunity to put it there.”

Featuring phrases such as “We are here coz you were there” and “Without us there is no Britain”, the work also highlights Indian resistance to British colonial rule of India in a statement of acknowledgement and liberation.

The installation even features a neon figure of Lakshmibai, Rani (Queen) of Jhansi who was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to colonial rule during the 19th Century.

And atop the gallery, Chila has recast the figure of Britannia, who represents colonialism and imperialism with Kali, goddess of creation and destruction.

Adorned with the words “I’m a Mess”, Kali doesn’t just represent Hinduism and feminism.

Chila said: “It’s like everybody saying: ‘well the country’s in a mess’.”

RESISTANCE: Phrases on the commission highlight India’s resistance to British rule

Commissioned by the Tate last Spring at a time when Britain was thrust into uncertainty, Chila spent her lockdown in the studio creating a work that would spread light and hope when it opened during Diwali last November.

She explained: “At that point, the coronavirus was starting to take its toll on people, so I decided to use words like hope and joy.

“Diwali is about good over evil and light over darkness and I felt that we were all going into darkness and we needed some light in our lives.”

As well as the emphasis on Diwali and India’s past, Chila also viewed the project as way to send out a sense of fun, adorning the columns and steps with vibrant collages of mythology, fireworks and abstract floral works.

Featuring a neon recreation of her late father’s ice cream van and a 3D figure of the tiger of Bengal, the artist has infused her heritage with childhood memories to bring joy to those walking the streets at Millbank.

BENGAL TIGER: Chila infused the piece with her heritage and childhood memories

For Chila, the title of the piece not only incorporates the elements of past and future, but also conveys the message of hope she is trying to give out now.

She said: “The title suggests inspiration can be found in the past to give us a sense of hope for now, as we look to the future.”

So, with Tate Britain lit by a celebration of neon light and swirling colour for one more month, people can see light in the darkness and look forward, into what will hopefully be a brave new world.

‘remembering a brave new world’ is currently set to run until 31 January.

You can check out the commission here.

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