“We’ve all endured difficult times and I speak on behalf of Blackpool Council when I say your words have provided joy and hope to the people of our town.”
This was Councillor Kathryn Benson speaking during a small celebration outside the Grundy Art Gallery. The event was organised to welcome artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman whose words ‘Blackpool Light of My Life’ have been lighting up the gallery’s façade since mid-October.
As part of its 110th anniversary celebrations, together with this year’s Lightpool Festival the Grundy has commissioned a multi-coloured light work from the artist. Inspired by annual family trips from her home in Bootle to see the Blackpool Illuminations, Burman has transformed the exterior of the Grundy with a riot of colour. On one side there is a mermaid, a typical motif of the illuminations, representing renewal. On the other, a pair of flamingos form a heart between them. The columns of the Grade II listed building are sheathed in densely layered collages mixing English and Punjabi words and images more typical of Burman’s work, and then wrapped with ropes of coloured light.
Sadly, the lights come down with the rest of the Blackpool Illuminations in early January 2022. However, Benson also announced the good news that the Grundy has purchased some of the pieces and hopes to secure funding to acquire the entire display.
If you haven’t seen Burman’s work before then, frankly, you haven’t been looking hard enough. Burman, the self-styled ‘Punjabi Liverpudlian’, became an overnight success following her neon light takeover of the façade of Tate Britain during the lockdown of Christmas 2020. This led to high-profile commissions, including the Covent Garden shopping district, the Netflix film White Tiger, Liverpool Town Hall, Victoria Beckham’s Mayfair shop, and now Blackpool, the original source of her inspiration.
Of course, this overnight success has taken a lot of hard graft. Burman left Liverpool for Leeds in 1976 to study art. At the time, the art school was creating art school bands such as Gang of Four, the Mekons, Delta 5 and Scritti Politti, to name just a few. At the same time, Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer, was still at large.
By the time Burman hit London in the early 1980s to study an MA in printmaking at the Slade, her work had taken on a political slant. She became part of a group of radical young Black and Asian women artists whose work engaged with the social, cultural and political issues of the time and challenged the art world’s status quo. Lubaina Himid curated three groundbreaking exhibitions of their work in London in the early 80s. I think that Himid’s helping hand is probably present in the current well-deserved renaissance of Burman and other overlooked intersectional artists of that time.
Burman is an engaging personality. Her aunty and cousin came to the event outside the Grundy. ‘Aunty’ is actually the daughter of Burman’s dad’s best friend from India. They both talk warmly of their fathers who came to England together after Partition. Outside the gallery, Burman is wearing Victoria Beckham daytime pyjamas and soft leather boots (“She just keeps giving me stuff for free. I’m not here to sell her clothes”), but admits she still gets loads of her gear from charity shops. When I bump into her the following day, she’s wearing a fabulous pair of shiny silver trousers from a charity shop and a bright red Victoria Beckham cable knit sweater.
A couple of days after the Grundy event, Burman emailed me a link to an interview she’d done with Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern. It is lovely and candid. In it, among other things, Morris ponders whether the art world’s focus on the YBAs in the 1990s was to the detriment of other artists working at that time, to which Burman responds: “Damien Hirst should have knocked on my door.”
Main image: Chila Kumari Singh Burman Blackpool Light of My Life (2021). Installed on the Grundy Art Gallery façade Oct 19, 2021 – Jan 3, 2222. Co-commission by Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool Illuminations and Lightpool Festival. © the artist and courtesy Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool. Photo: Jonathan Lynch.
Blackpool Light of My Life by Chila Kumari Singh Burman is on display at the Grundy Gallery in Blackpool until January 3, 2021. For more information, click here.