by Soraya Murray
Make Me a Summary of the World at the San José Museum of Art (SJMA) offers an aesthetically overwhelming 20-year retrospective of Rina Banerjee, whose installations, assemblages and drawings tackle postcolonialism and globalization and the engines of capitalism and excess consumption that drive them.
Willful and difficult objects, Banerjee’s imaginings tread the line between sacred and profane expressions of global interconnection. Sculptures, installations and works on paper point to identity and how it is continuously negotiated under the duress produced by transnational flows of capital, goods, technologies and ideologies. These are bold, resentful, fearsome manifestations—furious, and in some moments intensely beautiful.
Viola, from New Orleans-ah… (2017), a sculptural installation suspended high above in the foyer, cuts across onto the second floor where the exhibition resides. On the foyer side, fine threads, suggesting a parachute, lead the eye in a grand sweep towards an ephemeral figure perched on the upper floor. Made of Murano glass horns, Indian rakes, steel, vintage cashmere shawls, a French wire Ferris wheel, and copious thread, the winged figure possesses the face of a African Yoruba mask. On a bed of sand, shells, pebbles and wooden shoe forms, the alien parachutist trudges forward into a strange land, straining her full weight against her chute lines ?at the moment before her canopy falls to the ground. The work nominally commemorates the life of Viola Ida Lewis, an African-American woman who lived in New Orleans and married a South Asian immigrant, Joseph Abdin, in 1906. But what it primarily does is monumentalize the contributions of African and South Asian women — in particular Bengali peddlers of embroidered fabrics and silk who, because of their skin color, were wrongly classified as mulattoes, and thereby subsumed, willingly or not, into the polyglot mix that is America.
Born in Kolkata, India and raised in New York, Banerjee, 56, knows something about this phenomenon from having moved with her family to London, Manchester and Philadelphia — places where her father worked as a nuclear engineer. A polymer engineering major at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, she completed her bachelor’s degree after a detour into art-making at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Penn State. Banerjee went on to attend the Yale School of Art, earning an MFA in 1995. Within a few years, she was exhibiting work, and by 1998 had her first solo exhibition at Colgate University. In 2000, Banerjee was included in the Whitney Biennial. Since then, she has established an international reputation in exhibitions such as the 57th Venice Biennale (2017), Prospect New Orleans (2017), and the Greater New
These are bold, resentful, fearsome manifestations—furious, and in some moments, intensely beautiful creations.
York Show at MoMA PS1, among many others. Banerjee’s diasporic personal history is complicated by her artistic maturation against the backdrop of such proliferating biennials, in which artists circulate in international mega-exhibitions as part of a global conversation in contemporary art and theory.
While the artist has described herself as a “bad student” of engineering, it’s clear from the work that science — or more precisely rational, empirical thinking — inform her production in profound ways. The term “hybridity,” which infers a kind of biological splicing and lack of fixed definition, is often bandied about in reference to Banerjee’s offerings. But this, too, is a complicated term, and within the context of postcolonial discussions used (likely most famously by renown scholar Homi Bhabha) to denote an in-betweenness born of intercultural contact. Hybrid, monstrous, excessive forms populate the whole of Banerjee’s production, whether the multi-media 2-D works, sculptures or installations.
In addition to hybridization, major conceptual components of her work include themes of collection, possession, circulation, proliferation, and notions of corrupted authenticity or purity. These gesture toward the Western colonial expansion period, during which time understanding the world as a system of categories and hierarchies drove imperialist efforts. This is strongly represented in works like Her Captivity was once someone's treasure…(2011) in which a Victorian birdcage set upon an Anglo-Indian carved wooden pedestal is adorned excessively with shells, amber-colored feather fans, and fleshy looking gourds dangling below. Coral, doll heads, steel knitted mesh and glass beads, as well as Kenyan tourist sculptures seem to protrude from it in all directions, as if the cage is a forgotten site of some unholy experiment.
Disease and contagion are prominently invoked as metaphors for colonialism’s reach and aberrant outcomes. Banerjee’s unwieldy, chimeric objects bespeak nightmares about the loss of cultural purity, re-contextualizing those phobias into contemplative forms for our consideration. They speak to one’s own self-making, and, in the absence of a pre-existing mold, unforeseen outcomes. Pod-like forms such as in Excessive flower…(2017), Women did do this in shining… (2017), Winter’s Flower…(2009) and The world as burnt fruit (2009) invoke the botanical. But these are not pretty flowers; instead, we are presented with large, dangerous buds with pincer- like protrusions and cilia-like tendrils that reach out in a malignant, Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers kind of way.
There’s quite a bit of cheekiness in this work as well. Take, for example, the hot-pink Taj Mahal that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition. Titled Take me, take me, take me… to the Palace of love (2003), the traversable architecture is constructed with a wire frame and what looks like colored plastic wrap. Hung from the ceiling, it emanates a kind of junky consumability like inflatable toys or cotton candy. Within it, an antique Anglo-Indian Bombay dark wood chair is piled high with baubles and suspended above eye-level. Below, an ornately carved, low wooden plinth supports a black, inlaid globe. The titular phrase, lettered in a pink Hindi script, circles the globe. This self-consciously kitschy re-presentation of India’s most iconic architectural monument stands as a sardonic comment on the reduction of cultures to objects of fickle mass consumption, while the excessive accumulation of disposable materials and amassed everyday objects speaks to the ecological impact of it all.
in A World Lost…(2013), the disposable plastic cups, coins, red string, shells, stones, bones and toy figurines strewn across a makeshift cartography of Asian river systems speak equally to imperial and environmental catastrophe. Hovering above Banerjee’s map of the territory, something resembling the framework of a hot air balloon suggests dominion from above.
This conceptual mobilization of excess is reinforced through Banerjee’s strategic use of extended, poetic titles. For example, the full title of Make me a summary of the world!… (2014) is: Make me a summary of the world! She was his guide and had traveled on camel, rhino, elephant and kangaroo, dedicated to dried plants, glass houses—for medical study, vegetable sexuality, self-pollination, fertilization her reach pierced the woods country by country. The
roughly 7×4-foot construction is made of blue Chinese umbrellas presented atop a cowrie-shell-adorned protrusion with a doll’s head capping it. On its tall stand, a wooden rhino with bulbous eyes is suspended above a gourd and series of adornments, sea sponges, branches and glass chandelier drops. Below, a small band of pewter soldiers stakes out territory. It reads as an unintended, impossible form, a mutation.
Works on paper evoking scientific illustration, mapmaking, Indian miniatures and Asian watercolors, address similar themes in much more illustrative form, referencing the function of colonial-era modes of Western knowledge production and their appropriation of the “Oriental” from colonized places. In Learn of their discovery…(2013), the bodies of two female figures — one distinctively Indian, the other lighter haired — protrude in strange directions against a turmeric sky and green ground. Their impossible forms, connected at the hip, spread apart and float away from each other, each entangled in crimson threadlike tendrils that dangle from ?above. Works such as these feel distinctly more contained than the three-dimensional works, and call to mind other artists working in this mode such as African diasporic artist Wangechi Mutu, and Korean artist Lee Bul.
The retrospective exhibition, co-organized by the SJMA and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, was presented in the latter museum’s original Historic Landmark Building alongside 19th-century portrait and landscape paintings. It was curated by Jodi Throckmorton (PAFA) and Lauren Schell Dickens (SJMA). Installed at the SJMA and removed from colonial-era manifestations of power and “high” culture, the work resonates differently. Rather than communing with the past, it engages the future-oriented energies churning in Silicon Valley, bringing to mind its newly arrived immigrants: the people of color trained, in medical, scientific and computational fields, who now populate it. One wonders what new hybridities are being birthed in the flows of information, bodies, and cultures passing through this major node of global production.
Above all, the works in the exhibition feel intensely concentrated, if a bit overwhelming, perhaps due to the sheer density of their construction. Here one sees a thousand miniature brown bottles strung together; there innumerable cowrie shells affixed to organic, blossom-like forms. Horns and gourds protrude from places they do not organically belong. Traces of these objects’ former existences outside the realm of high art, as adornments, trinkets or everyday objects, are entangled with their newly invented functions. Compounding matters are the materials themselves, which seem to carry pre-existing cultural baggage.
Idiosyncratic, frustrating, and suspended in a refusal to please or easily resolve, Make Me a Summary of the World produces complicated feelings about what it means to live as a postcolonial subject and a product of globalization while fashioning one’s identity from the detritus of empire.
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Rina Banerjee:” Make Me a Summary of the World” @ San José Museum of Art through October 6, 2019.
About the author:
Soraya Murray is an interdisciplinary scholar of contemporary visual culture, with a particular interest in art, film, and video games. An Associate Professor in the Film + Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, her writings are published in Art Journal, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, CTheory, Public Art Review, Third Text, Film Quarterly, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art and Critical Inquiry. Murray’s book, On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space (I.B. Tauris, 2018), considers video games from a visual culture perspective, examining how they are deeply entangled with contemporary political, cultural and economic conflicts.