Review: Tate Britain Diwali exhibit

As Britain approaches its darkest hours it’s inspiring to know that artists like Chila Kumari Singh Burman can channel their culture and creativity, in order to create exhibits such as this. Tate Britain’s annual winter commission is graced by neon lights, Hindu mythology and colonial history. All in celebration of India’s annual festival of light Diwali. This dazzling display of Hindu goddesses, Indian queens and warriors couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. This year has had many dark moments such as lockdowns, disease, unemployment and social unrest. So Burman’s installation is the beacon of hope we never knew we needed. Especially given that London’s galleries have been shut due to the second national lockdown, but the exhibit completely transcends this tragedy. Literally outshining all of London’s currently redacted art exhibits through its installation on Tate Britain’s exterior. It is most definitely a sight to behold and beyond that its deeper meanings give the exhibition real cultural substance.

One of the many struggles we’ve had in 2020 is the issue of racism. So, an exhibit such as this that brings another culture to London’s artistic forefront is a welcomed sight. In glowing neon writing there lies a powerful message; ‘without us there is no Britain’. A statement that denotes what modern day London represents, a culturally vibrant and diverse abode. But it also indirectly personifies what Diwali represents. In Burman’s words, Diwali is “about hope, unity and the light at the end of the tunnel”. Just what the United Kingdom needs to remind us to stay united in hope of a better future. There were many powerful elements in this piece that symbolised this, including its title. ‘Remembering a brave new world’. Words that are not just powerful, but profound. Aptly named by Burman. Highlighting the fact that we have already fought against racism, and that we must continue to stand together now to eradicate it.

Other powerful symbolism is at play here too, with the Britannia figure at the top of the building covered in Kali. Burman clearly is highlighting the United Kingdom’s imperialist background, while also shrouding it with Kali the Hindu goddess of power and liberation. A clear and self-explanatory visual metaphor that critiques the architecture’s partisanship; and by extension the United Kingdom’s Eurocentric bias. One can truly appreciate the level of thought and detail when it comes to this symbolism. Tackling wider issues in such a striking way can be a hard thing to do. The ignorant and uncultured may argue tackling wider issues such as this would make for a boring display, yet this is anything but that. Never has being woke looked so good. My only criticism is a missed opportunity. While hardly consequential in the grand scheme of things, I would have thought that a neon lotus flower would accompany the other glowing spectacles nicely. I say this on both a physical level and a symbolic one. Of course, lotus flowers are a beautiful sight to behold. However, in Hinduism, they represent enlightenment amid ignorance. Which would have been perfect considering the woke symbolism at play here. A shame, but by no means is its absence here a detriment to the exhibit as a whole.

Burman has gone to great lengths to tackle wider issues, but she did not forget to add her stamp to it. In fact, this entire piece was inspired by her childhood. At first glance, it might not be too obvious which part of the exhibit represents her history. But when you think about it a neon ice cream truck does sort of diverge from the more traditional Hindu elements, such as the glowing neon deities. It’s the festival of light for sure, but what’s an ice cream truck and got to do with it? Well as Burman explained, when her “Dad came over from India he was a Tailor, couldn’t get any work so he got an ice cream van”. A story that breaks your heart but also warms it, working in an ice cream van definitely would definitely spread a bit of joy around. Diwali is all about sharing so while at first, it appears to be random, once I had the context it only added to my enjoyment of the exhibit. In Diwali, it wasn’t unheard of to give your friends and neighbours food to celebrate and really fulfil the concept of sharing that Diwali represents. I thoroughly enjoyed gazing upon this piece, the next time Burman’s name comes up on my feed I’ll view it without hesitation. The festival of light has well and truly come to London thanks to Burman.