Object of the Week: Kali (I’m a Mess)

Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1

Photo: © Tate 2020/Joe Humphrys.

The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.

With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”

“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”

“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.” 

SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2

Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?

Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington

The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.


1 https://www.dezeen.com/awards/2021/winners/remembering-a-brave-new-world/#

2 Britannia is the embodiment of Britain in female form as a symbol of British national pride and unity, but also, more troublingly, a long-lasting symbol of colonialism, extraction, and violence.

Image: Kali (I’m a Mess), 2020, Chila Kumari Burman, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in., Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

SAM Creates: Wishing You a Happy Diwali!

Family festivals at the Seattle Asian Art Museum connect families with performances, art activities, and other programming related to SAM’s Asian art collection. While our Asian Art Museum remains closed, families at home can make art and learn more about Asian art, as well as our wonderful community partners.

Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, celebrated by many people throughout South Asia, as well as in Seattle. For the past 10 years, in collaboration with our community partner, Junior Asha, SAM has organized a Diwali celebration for families held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum each November. Junior Asha is the youth chapter of the Asha for Education – Seattle Chapter. Asha is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing about socio-economic change in India primarily through education. In addition to raising funds for education, Junior Asha members also support the local community by volunteering at events such as the Diwali Family Festival at the Asian Art Museum. 

Free First Saturday, Diwali Family Festival, Asian Art Museum

Each year members of Junior Asha have dedicated their time to creating programming for the festival. This has included dance performances showcasing different types of Indian dance. Festivities performed by members of Junior Asha. One component that has remained constant across many celebrations is the youth and Tiny Tots fashion show led by Junior Asha. Members also spent time in the months leading up to the event learning about the art on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and working with SAM docents to create their own My Favorite Things tour of the museum. Members presented their tours at the Diwali Family Festival sharing their own unique opinions on artwork with the community. 

Although we won’t be gathering in person this year, we’re happy to highlight our incredible partnership with Junior Asha and to share an art activity from last year’s Diwali Family Festival for families to create at home. We’re looking forward to once again gathering together in celebration in the future.

Free First Saturday, Diwali Family Festival, Asian Art Museum

ART ACTIVITY: LUMINOUS LANTERNS

For ages 6-10+

Add a bit of color and light as you celebrate Diwali from home! Design and decorate a paper lantern with cutouts, tissue paper, and more. You can then place a light source inside when it gets dark out and see your creation come to life. 

What You’ll Need

  • Construction paper or cardstock 
  • Pencil
  • Scissors 
  • Tape or washi tape
  • Hole punch, push pin, or X-acto knife (optional, requires adult assistance)
  • Tissue paper (optional)
  • Markers (optional)
  • Tea light candle or flameless LED candle (optional)
  1. Cut a piece of square construction paper in the shape of a plus-sign, with four equal sides surrounding a square in the middle. If your piece of construction paper is rectangular, you can make it a square by folding over a corner and cutting off the extra paper on the bottom.
  2. The middle of the plus-sign will be the bottom of your lantern, so you can leave that alone for now. With pencil, sketch out a design or pattern on each of the other four sides that you can easily cut out or trace later. This can be inspired by something you see in your home or an artwork in the Asian Art Museum.
  3. Using scissors, a hole punch, push pins, or an X-acto knife, cut out or trace the design that you created. You can bend the sides of the paper over and cut out symmetrical shapes using scissors. Remember to have a grownup help you if you are using push pins or an X-acto knife. If you like, you can tape pieces of tissue paper over the cutouts to add different colors to your lantern.
  4. You can turn your plus-sign around and add decorative tape or other designs in marker. Once you have finished with what you want to cut out and add, fold the four sides of the plus-sign up to create a box without a top. You can add more decorations by cutting out and folding smaller pieces of paper, then taping them on the sides.
  5. Once you’re happy with your lantern, wait until the sun sets and place a light source inside. How do the colors and shapes change when there’s a light inside? During Diwali, people put up many lights to celebrate the special day. You can make even more lanterns in different colors, shapes, and sizes too!

KEEP LEARNING WITH A STORY

Learn more about the lights, food, and festivities of Diwali in the book Binny’s Diwali by Thrity Umirgar, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani. You can follow along with a read aloud of the book, check it out through the King County Library System, or purchase it from a bookseller.

Yaoyao Liu, SAM Museum Educator

Photos: Jen Au
SAMBlog