THE WORD Covid – a glimmer of light for minority artists?

Through the catastrophic gloom of the pandemic for art, the Liverpool-born artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman sees a possible silver lining for marginalised groups

I have no words to describe 2020, a year that has taken so much from us all while giving very little in return. My world is the art world, so it’s been devastating to watch the continued impact a virus has caused to one of the oldest, most extraordinary industries on earth.

It’s impossible to sugarcoat it. Much of the art world’s infrastructure was already precariously balanced and a year of global lockdowns has, in many ways, exacerbated these inequalities. Galleries are financially strapped, art schools are struggling, museums are shut and artists, as the end recipients of all these challenges, have been pushed to the limit.

The industry has been turned upside down…and yet, when reflecting on all that’s happened, I have recently realised there is room for some cautious optimism. We may be experiencing the last days of the art world we know, but we are also experiencing the beginning of a new one too.

I am no stranger to the myriad barriers emerging artists must face in the UK. Most art is still bound up in traditional ideas of exclusivity, meaning a small circle of collectors, gallerists and museum directors set the rules and the pace. This elitism is largely to blame for the lack of women, people of colour, LGBT and other minority artists displayed at major art exhibitions worldwide.

Like all crises the pandemic went on to hit marginalised groups the worst, so there is no denying these artists already struggling from the industry’s blatant disparities were the worst affected last year. Yet there is something which has given me a glimmer of optimism, if not for this generation of artists, then for the next.

Until last spring the art industry was one of the last in existence to be transformed by social media and digital tools. Yet when the world went into lockdown the art industry, for so long driven by large, social, events, was suddenly forced to adapt. It was heartbreaking to see the biggest and most renowned art fairs in the world cancelled overnight, but heartening to see how rapidly they digitised. Degree shows for students went digital and galleries across the globe offered curator-led tours of distinguished exhibitions online. In many respects, the move to online has been somewhat of a democratiser. It has lowered the barriers to participation for artists, curators and gallerists by levelling the playing field for those without the capital or equity to pursue a bricks-and-mortar space, or the time and financial resources to travel. This is certainly a step in the right direction and something which gives optimism for the years to come.

Something else which has come out of this dark time is a wider acceptance and enjoyment of art. Uptake of art and creativity grew throughout 2020, with the entire population suddenly stuck indoors and on the hunt for fresh distractions to pass the time. What’s more, art and creativity are fantastic for channeling emotions, something needed  by people during periods of uncertainty.  

I was blown away to have my installation Remembering a brave new world (main image) featured as Tate Britain’s winter commission, but what touched me most was the joy it seemed to bring the people who went to see it. With its neon sculptures including Hindu deities like Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and purity, and Ganesh, the god of prosperity, juxtaposed with lips eating an ice cream cornet and winter snowflakes, I wanted the installation to instill feelings of fun, light and hope for the future. Despite the gallery being closed, the public made its way through the cold dark nights to enjoy my art. To me, this proves two things. Firstly, the very need for art to exist and secondly, an acceptance of art depicting different cultures and heritages.

This acceptance of diverse art is incredibly important for the industry to progress and the signs are there that slowly this much needed change is starting to happen. Yet it doesn’t all come down to an evolving public attitude - there is huge need for institutions to start making moves here too. The pandemic forcing the art world to finally move online was certainly a big step, but minority artists still need funding and support, now more than ever before.

Grants, funding schemes and art foundations must continue to offer support to artists. One such organisation is Stellar International Art Foundation, which championed me personally three years ago, by offering me a platform to display and discuss my work Opportunities like these are priceless for emerging artists and it is imperative they continue to exist both throughout the rest of the pandemic and beyond.

Covid-19 has been tough on the art world – that nobody can deny. All we can hope is that all these nuggets of positive change will continue to grow, so that the art world will rise from the pandemic like a phoenix from the ashes. We will be different – but we will be bold, modern and more internationalised and democratised than ever before.

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