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Review: Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Merseyside Burman Empire, at FACT

I’ve not had an excuse to see FACT’s upstairs gallery in use, but last month’s Liverpool Artists’ Network Slide Slam seemed pretty perfect.

Billed as a “multi-layered and ever-changing” room, designed for local artists to use as a space to test ideas and create new work, the neon-filled exhibition spread itself thin very deliberately, so that it can fulfil that purpose.

For artists, the installation is a sign post to FACT’s new studio provision, and their commitment to supporting local artists. For audiences, it’s an exhibition in its own right, but one that they will most likely encounter through separate events.

Neon signs daub the walls, and hang imposingly from the ceiling, while a Tuk Tuk, covered from top to bottom, in the artist’s recognisable print and pattern, serves both as a prop, and artwork, and a quiet space to reflect on the very noisy personal history of Chila Kumari Singh Burman.

Her heritage is Punjabi-Hindu, but her upbringing in Bootle meant that her cultural identity was often skewed through a very British lens. At the same time, that Britishness was skewed by her heritage and her hometown, and the space, packed with neons of Hindu deities, bindis and tigers is a reflection of that.

Set inside this bright and glaring mesh of colour are three films. One is, I think, a representation of the artist’s own experience in the art world, though it is presented fairly anonymously. The other is directly autobiographical, sharing childhood memories of Bollywood films and temples, juxtaposed against the starkly scouse ice cream van business her father ran.

The third is the one that makes the most sense of the rest of the space though. Kamala, a film the artist produced in 1996, is a clear presentation of a childhood mixed between Scouse and Punjabi culture.

For any artists here, the warmth of Chila Kumari Singh Burman is clear, offering both support and empathy to the artists of Liverpool, and ensuring that they have this space to work, however temporary.

It’s fitting that Chila Kumari Singh Burman (the artist behind this space) makes a more than deliberate reference to her MBE for services to visual art in the naming of the space; Merseyside Burman Empire. Not only is this an elegant representation of her work and identity, it’s a practical and useful venue for artists to use.

Liverpool Artists’ Network proved that pretty clearly with their Slide Slam, an event that is, while irregular, something or a rolling tradition now, and allows artists a more formal vessel to share their work from, whether its with a view of forming new collaborations, or simply telling the world what they’re up to.

Thankfully, you don’t actually need to wait for these public events as the space is generally open to the public, but if you get a chance, it’s worth seeing it as it should be – in use, busy, and actively supporting the development of new work.

Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Merseyside Burman Empire is open at FACT until 18th June 2023

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith