Tate’s Diwali-inspired winter commission lights up London

Artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman has fabulously illuminated the façade of Tate Britain for their fourth annual winter commission. On a truly monumental scale, Burman’s multi-coloured neon lights explore her British-Indian heritage and provide a much-needed sense of hope for the future. 

My idea is to disrupt the Neoclassical façade and mash it all up,” explained Burman. “It’s my take on the world as it is, defacing and refacing and putting chaos into order.” 

‘Remembering A Brave New World’ opened at the beginning of Diwali in 2020, the five-day festival of light that is celebrated by HindusJains and Sikhs. The exuberant installation, which sits athwart the traditional architecture, represents the festival’s symbolic triumph of light over darkness. 

It’s important to critique buildings like this because they’re very Eurocentric,” observed Burman. “So, I just thought: why not do something that captures what we’re all going through right now? I felt like it needed a blast of joy and light. And Diwali is about good over evil, about hope, unity and the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Piercing through the darkness of London’s winter nights, the fluorescent lights fuse Indian mythology and pop culture with childhood memories. Some lights are highly personal like the luminous ice cream van on the steps – after her family left India for Merseyside, her father’s first job in their new home was selling ice cream.  

“I want people to go: “Wow, is that really Tate Britain?”… I want to talk about my position as a South Asian woman growing up as a Punjabi Liverpudlian,” commented Burman. 

Spiritual imagery is ubiquitous, with neon representations of the third eye, the god Ganesha, and the goddess Kali. Slogans are superimposed across the building too, including the phrases ‘Love Shine Light’, ‘Without us there is no Britain’ and ‘I’m a mess’.  

Most of us, because we’re working from home, are waking up feeling a bit of a mess,” said Burman. “So Britannia is a mess because I’m a mess. And everybody says: that’s really good Chila because, in a way, Britain is in a mess.” 

The artist’s work often combines her Indian roots with Pop Art traditions and ranges across painting, printmaking, collage, photography and performance. In the 1980s, Burman was a crucial member of the British Black Arts movement. She later became one of the first South Asian women to create political art in the UK. 

Burman’s installation is very different in tone to last year’s winter commission, which saw artist Anne Hardy transform the façade into an apocalyptic Christmas scene. ‘Remembering A Brave New World’ runs from 14 November 2020 until 31 January 2021. 

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