Chila Kumari Singh Burman (‘Reaching Heights and Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed’) by Chila Kumari Singh Burman

  • View larger image
    'Reaching Heights and Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed',    by Chila Kumari Singh Burman,    1988,    NPG 7131,    © Chila Kumari Singh Burman
A self-portrait by contemporary artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman exploring multiple identities.
'Reaching Heights and Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed'
by Chila Kumari Singh Burman
etching and aquatint, 1988
22 in. x 29 1/8 in. (560 mm x 740 mm) overall
NPG 7131
© Chila Kumari Singh Burman
On display in Room 29 on Floor 1 at the National Portrait Gallery

Chila Kumari Singh Burman (born 1957) is known for combining popular culture with her Punjabi From or connected with the Punjab area in north-west India and Pakistan, its people or its language. Heritage The history, traditions, buildings and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character. in her artwork, which explores themes of feminism, gender and Cultural identity The way groups or individuals define themselves or others, in terms of ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, gender or other characteristics. .

Burman works across a wide range of artistic media including printmaking, drawing, painting, installation and film. She likes using unexpected styles and techniques in her art, which makes us stop and think. She has described her art as ‘fun, playful, cheeky, magical journeys that are happy and delightful’.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    'Reaching Heights and Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed',    by Chila Kumari Singh Burman,    1988,    NPG 7131,    © Chila Kumari Singh Burman
'Reaching Heights and Aphrodisiacs Being Socially Constructed', by Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 1988

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • This self-portrait is not an easily recognisable image of Burman. Instead, she has chosen to share her thoughts, feelings and imagination.
    • Burman has included different representations of herself. We can see two figures towards the centre of the image, surrounded by different shapes, patterns and textures. 
    • She shows herself as an imposing warrior figure, standing and facing towards us.
    • Below this standing figure we can see a figure lying down. A smaller, warrior figure stands in the top right of the picture. The self-portrait suggests a story. Perhaps the figure lying down is dreaming the rest of the picture. What can you see? How does the picture look to you?
    • The atmosphere is mysterious.  
    • The floating eyes and other shapes make the image seem surreal and otherworldly.
    • Burman often uses self-portraiture to express women’s Empowerment The act of giving somebody more control over their own life or the situation they are in. . 
    • The lying-down version of herself may be resting or sleeping.
    • The standing warrior figure may be the active version of herself. She looks powerful and fearless. 
    • Burman is showing that identity is complicated and that we can have more than one identity.
    • She has given her self-portrait a title that carries meaning for her but isn’t immediately clear to us, the viewer.
    • Burman has used two printmaking techniques – Etching A picture printed from a piece of glass or metal that has had lines cut into it; the art of making these pictures. and Aquatint A method of producing a picture using acid on a metal plate; a picture produced using this method. .
    • The lines used to draw the figures, shapes and patterns were made using etching, while the areas of black and grey Tone A shade of a colour. were made using aquatint.
    • The print looks like a collage, with different images and textures placed together – a technique often used in Pop art A movement that emerged in America and Britain in the 1950s that challenged artistic traditions by using imagery from popular consumer culture to create new artworks. . Burman has been described as an Asian Pop art A movement that emerged in America and Britain in the 1950s that challenged artistic traditions by using imagery from popular consumer culture to create new artworks. artist because she uses imagery and objects from popular Asian culture. Indian stickers, bindis, Chinese paper cut-outs, images of tuk-tuks and wrapping paper from Nepal have all featured in her work.
    • Surrealism is also an inspiration for Burman. The shapes that float around the figures in this self-portrait are similar to those used by Surrealist A style in art and literature in which ideas, images and objects are combined in a strange way, like in a dream. artists such as Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy. The Motif A design or a pattern used as decoration. of an eye with long spidery eyelashes also features in Surrealist art.
    • Burman’s storytelling approach to her self-portrait is also reminiscent of traditional Asian art, where portraits of rulers and gods are often included in narrative scenes that reflect their life and status.
I also like to draw on my iPad on the bus, on trains, in waiting rooms, anywhere that doesn’t wobble too much ... I just want to create and do things … that’s why I love being an artist!
Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 2018

Who is Chila Kumari Singh Burman?

  • Chila Kumari Singh Burman was born in Liverpool. Her parents had moved to Britain from the Punjab region in the north of India in the 1950s. 
  • Burman’s background and culture are an important part of her identity and she often references her Punjabi From or connected with the Punjab area in north-west India and Pakistan, its people or its language. Heritage The history, traditions, buildings and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character. in her work. 
  • She is known for her vibrant, colourful artworks and for experimenting with a range of different media and found objects. One of her best-known works is a giant glittery sculpture of an ice cream cone. It’s called Eat Me Now and is inspired by her dad, who owned an ice cream van.
  • She is also known for her etchings, which are mostly black and white, like this self-portrait. These often have a number of layers to them, creating different textures.
  • Burman has been making art for over 40 years and is an internationally recognised artist.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • In this self-portrait, rather than showing us what she looks like, Burman presents us with symbolic versions of herself. Through these, she challenges traditional representations of women and explores the fact that we can have more than one identity. 
  • The symbols reflect some of the ways in which women are represented, and the roles they are given in society. For example, the eyes perhaps symbolise the way women are represented as something to be looked at (or watched).
  • Burman is perhaps making a comment on how women are seen.
  • At the top left of the self-portrait are two arms. The way the hands are posed recalls the hand gestures used in traditional Punjabi From or connected with the Punjab area in north-west India and Pakistan, its people or its language. dance, where every movement is carefully choreographed and symbolic. This may be an example of Burman referencing her Punjabi Heritage The history, traditions, buildings and objects that a country or society has had for many years and that are considered an important part of its character. .
  • Burman also often includes images and objects from popular culture in her work. Her self-portrait as a warrior looks like a heroic warrior princess from a comic book.

Questions

  1. What do you think Chila Kumari Singh Burman is saying about herself in this self-portrait?
  1. How many different versions of yourself might you include in a self-portrait?
  1. What symbols, shapes or motifs might you include from your background or heritage?