• Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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Diverse crowd blooms at London flower show

Artist Chila Burman draws fresh ideas from vibrant displays

Chila Burman in front of the RHS lettering done in pink peonies

By: Amit Roy

THE Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) will be delighted that its Chelsea Flower Show, which has had an exclusively white, middle-class audience since it began in 1913, attracted a much more diverse group of people last week.

It is reckoned to be the most prestigious show of its kind in the world. Among the growing number of British Asians who attended this year was Chila Burman, one of the country’s best-known artists who lit up Tate Britain with her neon illuminations during the pandemic. She has also just done the design for the exterior of a British Airways Dreamliner 787 to mark the centenary of the airline’s flights to India.

Chila, who was seeking floral inspiration for a solo show she will have at Compton Verney in Warwickshire later this year, said: “This is my first time at Chelsea and I am blown away. If I could, I would come day and night. I am just in awe of this whole Chelsea Flower Show.”

Exploring the cactus corner

She wanted more British Asians to come to share her sense of wonder. “If you don’t buy a ticket in advance, if you buy it a day before, it is pricey. But it is worth saving for. You go to dinner and it costs as much as a ticket. It is such a treat.”

Certainly, there appeared to be more of an Asian presence this year. There were elderly women in salwar kameez, and often in wheelchairs, being helped along by family members. And Asian couples queued up with everyone else last Saturday (25) when plants were sold off at a discount at the end of the show. The greatest logistical challenge was to manoeuvre armfuls of prized plants through the departing crush at Sloane Square underground station.

Bonsai trees

Chila gave Eastern Eye a personal tour of the Chelsea Flower Show, picking the displays that had excited her artistic sensibilities – the frilly carnivorous plants with exceedingly slim stems; the vivid birds of paradise and anthurium from Barbados; Japanese Bonsai trees 500 years old; chrysanthemum blooms stuck into ice cream cones with a flake on top that reminded her of her late father; the red roses and their khushboo (fragrance) which reminded her of romantic Bollywood movies; and the cactus corner, which she associated with the likes of Clint Eastwood galloping across Texas.

From her point of view, there has always been a link between flowers and art. She gave the example of the master of impressionism, Claude Monet, who was inspired by his garden at his home in the tiny river Seine-side village of Giverny. “That’s why he painted the lilies,” Chila said, as she stood in front of the RHS lettering done in pink peonies.

Chila began her tour with the carnivorous plants: “The stems are so fine. That’s astounding. How did that even happen? Nature is just glorious.”

Red roses

At the display for flowers from Barbados, she was joined by actress Mamta Kaash, another Asian who happened to be passing. Chila marvelled: “Look at all the variations of red. It goes from white to pink to red. There’s a lot of energy in the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s better than going to an art exhibition because they all have to be issue-based. It does not have to be about race or gender. It’s pure nature, how extraordinary it is.” At the display for Bonsai trees, she could scarcely believe the age of the trees: “They can be hundreds of years old. I didn’t know that before I came here. I have never seen so many Bonsai trees in one place. They look like toys. And their green is so calming.”

Standing before chrysanthemums tucked into large cones she said: “My father sold ice cream from a van in Liverpool, so the connection for me is fabulous. Sometimes, you put edible flowers in a cocktail, and I do like a cocktail. I had a show at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and they had flowers on top of the gin. How cool is that!”

A beautiful girl in England is often called an “English rose” but Chila has a very different cultural hinterland. “To me, roses are Indian,” she said. “I watched so many Bollywood films in the 1960s and 70s. And they had red roses all the time. The girl expected their romantic partner to give her a red rose.”

Chrysanthemum blooms in ice cream cones

In the Grand Pavilion, well-known rose growers, among them Harkness and David Austin, were represented. Looking at the display arch in Peter Beales, she said: “There is so much Khushboo. In films you can see the expression on the actress’s face because of the perfume. That is why some of the best perfumes come from India. I once designed a perfume bottle which you can buy in Harrods or Liberty. It’s called Mumbai Noise.”

She quipped: “Maybe we should make a Bollywood film here among the roses and call it something like Silent Khushboo. My generation was brought up on Bollywood and Hindi film music.”

Her last stop was the cactus corner: “I have never seen so many cactuses in my whole life. I’d never seen a white cactus. That one looks like the marrows my mum and father used to grow.

With actress Mamta Kaash

“When you stand here, you feel you are in those movies about the wild west. Some look like they have got faces. You can see figurative elements in them. That’s so gorgeous,” she said.

Her main observation was: “Some of them are quite phallic. And a lot are very erotic. I once did handcuffs for a women’s sex shop with flowers. That’s why you get painters like Georgia O’Keeffe who did all those vagina paintings.”

A Guardian review of a 2016 exhibition of O’Keeffe’s paintings at Tate Modern made the comment: “There are few artists in history whose work is consistently reduced to the single question: flowers or vaginas?”

Chila drew attention to a cactus that is called “Mammillaria”.

“It means boobs,” she said. “There is an erotic vibe to the cactuses.”

She summed up what she had gained from the Chelsea Flower Show: “It is a little bit like high art meets popular culture meets nature meets science meets spiritualism.”

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