Chila Burman’s tiger in shortlist for London’s Fourth Plinth

The Punjabi Liverpool artist competes with six other talented sculptors

Chila Burman’s ‘The Smile You Send Returns to You’

Amit Roy

CHILA BURMAN, often lauded as the “Punjabi lass from Liverpool”, has been shortlisted along with six other artists for the much sought-after space on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Two winners will be announced next month and their works installed in 2026 and 2028, respectively.

The Fourth Plinth, which is in its 25th year, is currently occupied by two figures silhouetted against the skyline.

Believe in Discontent by Ruth Ewan

Called Antelope and created by Samson Kambalu, the sculpture restages a famous photograph of Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley. There is a historical role reversal, with the white man depicted life size against the towering African.

 Improntas (Imprints), by Teresa Margolles, has already been announced as the next sculpture on the Fourth Plinth in September 2024. The work is made up of plaster casts of the faces of hundreds of trans people that will be arranged around the plinth in the form of a Tzompantli, a skull rack from Mesoamerican civilisations.

Burman, who was born and brought up in Liverpool, is currently Britain’s busiest artist with a string of big commissions. She has included her trademark tiger in her Fourth Plinth proposal, called The Smile You Send Returns to You.

According to the judges, “the work tells of her father’s voyage to the UK from India on the HMS Battory. At the centre of the sculpture is her father’s ice-cream van, The Rocket, which is a recurring motif in Burman’s work.”

Burman’s van, with a tiger on top fashioned in neon lights, was taken to the football world cup in Qatar in 2022 by the Cabinet Office in London to project how the “Great” in Britain owed so much to its ethnic diversity.

It will be recalled that during the dark days of the pandemic, Burman’s installation at Tate Britain lit up the night sky and brought comfort to patients looking over the Thames from St Thomas’ Hospital.

The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which is meant to reflect the capital’s cultural diversity, may not be entirely to Nelson’s liking atop his lofty column.

Burman with her art work

But the Fourth Plinth has become the most prestigious spot in London for public art. It is funded by the mayor of London with support from Arts Council England and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Jemma Read, global head of corporate philanthropy at Bloomberg LP, commented: “The Fourth Plinth celebrates London’s global influences and provides a unique platform to consider our shared future.”

On Monday (19) when the shortlist was announced from inside the National Gallery, its director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, said: “The Fourth Plinth is located just a few yards from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, and I am delighted that we can host the exhibition of the shortlisted artists’ proposals in the gallery. It is important that we find ways to encourage the public to look at and become interested in art, whether it’s the great pictures in our museums or new art in public spaces, and I would encourage the public to have their say on these exciting proposals.”

He added: “The Fourth Plinth shares the same address as the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square – WC2N 5DN. People take notice of what happens in the square, and what’s exhibited on the Fourth Plinth. You have a fantastic view of Trafalgar Square from here [the National Gallery].”

Lady in Blue by Tschabalala Self

Ekow Eshun, chair of the Fourth Plinth commissioning group, recalled: “This year marks 25 years since the first commission – Ecce Homo by Mark Wallinger – in 1999. Since then, the changing artworks in Trafalgar Square continue to have a conversation with London, with Britain, about the nature and possibility of contemporary art, to speak to cultures, to speak to society, to speak to our times. We’re delighted to unveil a new set of proposals. The calibre and variety and strength of these proposals continue to show the Fourth Plinth programme remains the leading path for international contemporary art.”

He was followed by Justine Simons, deputy London mayor for culture, creative industries and 24hr London Team, who said: “The Fourth Plinth is renowned across the globe for bringing world-class contemporary art to the heart of London. I’m delighted that our shortlisted artists have provided such thought-provoking pieces. For 25 years the sculptures on the Fourth Plinth have sparked interest and debate – bringing out the art critic in everybody. I’ve no doubt that these proposals will continue that fantastic tradition.”

She said that “over the years the historical landscape in Trafalgar Square had remained largely the same” but the Fourth Plinth “is a public conversation about art in our city that is unmatched”.

She applauded the seven artists on the shortlist: “We’ve been blown away by the originality of your ideas.”

Burman’s tiger is always a favourite with audiences, but she is up against some tough competition.

Others on the shortlist include: Hornero by Gabriel Chaile – the sculpture is a celebration of the behaviour of the Rufous Hornero bird, a national emblem of Argentina.

Believe in Discontent by Ruth Ewan – the sculpture takes its title from words by suffragist Charlotte Despard, who addressed many crowds in Trafalgar Square. Modelled on a mass-produced ornament of a black cat, it challenges the hierarchy of sculpture versus ornament in public space as well as reflecting on the Square’s role in the history of social change, specifically the women from the suffrage movement who were insultingly portrayed as cats in the media.

 Ancient Feelings by Thomas J Price is a monumental golden bronze sculpture that depicts a fictional woman whose features have been amalgamated from a wide range of historic sources, creating a collective community portrait.

 Sweet Potatoes and Yams are Not the Same by Veronica Ryan is a work that presents a sweet potato island and builds on Ryan’s practice of using everyday objects, particularly ordinary foods. The humble potato, which originated in Peru, has travelled all around the world and represents the global conversations that happen in Trafalgar Square.

Ancient Feelings by Thomas J Price

Lady in Blue by Tschabalala Self is a sculpture that pays homage to a young, metropolitan woman of colour inspired by a desire to bring a contemporary ‘everywoman’ to Trafalgar Square.

Untitled by Andra Ursua sees the artist present a hollow, life-sized person on a horse covered in a shroud and cast in a slime-green resin.

The winners will be picked by the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, whose members include: Iwona Blazwick, independent curator and curator emerita Whitechapel Gallery; Mick Brundle, principal, Arup Associates; Jeremy Deller, artist; Ekow Eshun, writer, broadcaster (chair); Priyesh Mistry, associate curator, modern and contemporary projects, National Gallery; Eleanor Pinfield, director, Art on the Underground; Justine Simons; Matthew Slotover, publisher and co-founder Frieze; Jon Snow, broadcaster; and Sabine Unamun, director, Visual Arts and Museums, London, and Arts Council England.

 View the shortlist and have your say via