Dr Chila Burman is a British Indian artist who painted two murals in our period: for the GLC Anti-Racism Project in Southall, and for the Roundhouse in Camden.
Chila Kumari Burman was born in Walton Hospital near Bootle in the late 1950s. The family had moved to Britain when her father stopped working in India for Dunlop to take up a job at their English factory in Speke in Liverpool. Chila remembers growing up in the family home with her brother and sisters in Ash Street in Bootle and her mother taking the children to Billy Smart’s circus.
There were few black faces on the street but the working-class white people were friendly and supportive. Her father had a very welcoming attitude to other Indian people, asking them to visit. From one of these friends he found work selling ice-cream. Chila was in the ‘A’ stream at junior school, was enthusiastic about drawing and painting. Having passed the eleven plus exam she went on to Bootle High School for Girls, “full of very bright working class girls, the coolest school to go to. I was put into the science stream but allowed to continue art.” At fourteen Chila moved schools to go to Waterloo Park where she became friends with the only other Indian there, a girl from Kenya. Here the art teacher gave great encouragement and suggested she should go to art school and so Chila attended Southport Art School for her Foundation Year. At this time her parents were introducing boys to her with a view to marriage but Chila was determined to follow an artistic career.
The art school staff had said, “You are definitely a printmaker,” and persuaded her to go on to Leeds Polytechnic to take their Graphics Course, where she studied communications design and then printmaking. She was delighted to meet students from all over the world there, and learnt about colonialism from her Yugoslavian flatmate, Miroslav, and read Nietzsche, Marx and De Beauvoir. It was in Leeds too that Chila set up a women’s refuge. After graduating she decided to study at the Slade School of Art because it was so lively and bohemian – not ‘corporate’ like the Royal College – and where she became excited by the work of Tapies. In London Chila’s parents her parents insisted, for the sake of propriety -she stay with her aunt, a nurse living and working in Wormwood Scrubs. “She was great!”
Chila had become politically active. Through a friend she became a member of the Mukti Collective, which was producing Asian women’s magazines, and began doing illustrations for them. She began an association with the Southall Law Centre and was also selling the Socialist Worker newspaper on the streets. She covered issues on Ireland, was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Anti-Aparthied, and worked on Eritraen and Indian women’s issues. She could find no interest from her fellow Slade students in this work, and the School’s print department refused to allow her to print her political negatives! To this day, despite her efforts, the Slade has never appointed a black lecturer.
Then Chila was awarded a residency with Southall Black Sisters and Southall Asian Afro-Caribbean Arts Collective at their centre where, funded by the Greater London Council (GLC), she delivered art workshops for Asian women, speaking in Punjabi, and teaching women who came in from the local refuges. She set up a unit for a course in silk-screen printing and began a course in making collages as well. It was while working here that Parminder Vir from the GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit invited Chila and Keith Piper to paint the Southall Black Resistance mural.
There was difficulty finding a wall, so it was decided to paint the mural on boards. This would enable it to be done despite the limited room they had in the centre, and also an advantage as the mural could then be folded and transported to other venues, youth centres and community centres around Southall and make a greater impact. The artists began to collaborate on the themes and to outline the way these should be represented, using Chila’s experience and knowledge of the people and the issues in the area. “It was lovely – we worked so well together.” Chila had not worked at that scale of boards eight feet high before.
Keith took responsibility for the overall design and when he had completed drawing up the boards, Chila followed his outlines and painted the faces and figures. “I added bright Indian colours and made it ‘pop out’ more. I applied colour thick, clear and sharp, I really did think it was great.” The opening was a happy, well attended event, the mural was well liked by the Southall Black Sisters, the Afro-Caribbean Arts Collective, the Ethnic Arts Committee, and by Chila’s family who came down from Liverpool for the event. Unfortunately the mural was not destined to tour as the artists had intended and after a year it was removed to storage and was not seen again. Through the project Chila’s circle widened, meeting the ‘Race Today Collective’ and ‘Artrage’ and groups in music, film, theatre and dance and new womens groups. The last days of the GLC was a period of excitement, with artists, performers and bands coming from all over the world. It was “a hive of political activity and the Arts!”
In 1986 Chila’s work appeared in “a really cool group show” at ‘The People’s Gallery’ in Chalk Farm, and she was asked by the owner to paint, together with other Black artists, hoardings to surround the Roundhouse. The genesis of the idea was to source artists who could depict different places around the world. Lubaina Himid, Shanti Panchal, Verbena, Gavin Jantjes, Tam Joseph and Chila were asked each to design and paint a series of boards reflecting a different culture in the world, namely from China and Japan, the Caribbean, Africa, India and Asia. A vast space in the ‘Yaa Asantewaa Arts and Communty Centre’ in Maida Vale was hired for the artists to paint in. To their surprise they were followed as they worked by a Channel Four film crew for the programme: ‘State of The Art.’
“There was a great communal atmosphere – we all had a great time – Tam was such a gas – Verbena’s work was a great Picasso-interpreted piece.” Chila had eight door-sized panels to paint. “I thought my stuff was dead cool because I loved everything to do with China – animations, ribbons, graffiti, books of popular culture – nicking stuff from all over.” There was a launch, it was a hit, had a great public response, and the panels stayed up for a good while. When it was time for the panels to come down – they had begun to deteriorate – most of them disappeared. Chila took two away, images of Japanese women in kimonos holding up the world, which she gave to her mother.
Chila painted more murals after her Southall work, and continues as an artist and political activist, making silk-sceen prints, banners and paintings, illustrating books and working with communities in the East End. She campaigns for Black rights, Women’s rights and many left-wing causes and is frequently interviewed in the media. Her’s is an influential voice encouraging young artists fresh from Art School to find some work, particularly with schools and communities. “You should get out there. Youth clubs need you big-time,” she says.