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New Jersey Stage | Two Exhibitions Cross the Lines Between Art, Craft and Poetry

By Ilene Dube,

Behold the titles used by Rina Banerjee. They read like poems.  

The one for her installation at the Hunterdon Art Museum, for example, where the exhibition Rina Banerjee: Blemish, In Deep Pink Everyplace Begins is on view through Sept. 4, reads: 

“She would be a vision of Beauty if only...her complexion was whitened! As if to be not, to see her as that which is not and separately see part of her upon reflection, only as not human, not body and not yet whole, not yet made, as illness, as a single flaw with intent to take away, save it with this so to cure (vanish cream) her of ugliness, oldness, blemishes, freckles, moles and race deliver her as a sign of brightness, lightness, crowned beauty is a defining system. Where her otherness could marked, has been crowned.”

Asked about her process in writing these, the artists says “I am so often unable to surrender the brush, the pen, the paint to a painting, and so I ask to speak in tongues that share what I imagine the visual image could be about.”

The above-named installation includes an alabaster bust on a mahogany piano stool wearing a lace cap whose frayed strands are splayed in a network connecting to a wall of antique mirrors, hung salon style. Cowry shells, buffalo horns, a handheld mirror and more frayed threads are piled at the base.  

The woman depicted in white marble might be described, by some, as having classical beauty, but clearly her angular features and alabaster complexion exclude a large portion of the world’s beauties.

About the exhibition’s title, Banerjee says “A blemish is a mark that is an error that also identifies our uniqueness like a birthmark, or it can be a wound or unnatural scar. This idea can be applied to communities that we reject. I want us to remember that sometimes it is this very edge that determines our identity, our future and authenticity. Deep Pink is like a wound that exposes our color inside and reminds us we are of the same flesh.”

Self-described as a “post-colonial feminist scholar and humanist,” Banerjee talks about “the ideal skin, proper normal color of beauty” in an accompanying video made by the museum’s Director of Communications Brian Kearney. Playing on a tablet, the video makes you feel as if the artist is right there in the room talking to you. Banerjee speaks with the intonations of a poet as well.

“Made of stone, this beauty is frozen, it is the legend of Medusa that creates the legacy of immobile sculpture,” says Banerjee. In the room for the installation, she is trying to create movement in an enclosure which she describes as a domestic space. “The mirrors are decorative objects that create constellations like stars that reflect back upon us who we are.”

The museum had approached Banerjee well before the pandemic, according to Executive Director Marjorie Frankel Nathanson. Banerjee describes the pandemic as “an important mirror by which to see your life... what it is and what you as the maker want it to be, shaping it to feel like a fine-fitted garment and not a store-bought readymade.” She asks herself, “where can I grow and where can I give more?”

After earning a Master of Fine Arts at Yale in 1995, Banerjee’s career rocketed to success, including an invitation to participate in the 2000 Whitney Biennial and other biennials throughout the world.

She had her first American retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 2018, an exhibition that filled the Frank Furness-designed rococo building with a floating red cellophane version of the Taj Mahal titled “Take me, take me, take me… to the Palace of Love” and other sculptures made from parasols, a Yoruba mask, Korean and Indian silks, Chinese altar lamps, Japanese mosquito nets, glass beads, toys, and any number of items you might find in an international bazaar. It is fitting, as her work addresses globalism and colonialism, as well as ethnicity, race, migration and American diasporic histories.

Born in 1963 in Kolkata, India, and living in Manchester and London, England, Banerjee  moved with her family to Queens, New York, at age 7. “I remember some and selectively but I also feel its weight upon my life as it was a time that salted my familiarity with migration politics in the 70s,” she reflects.

“The neighborhoods preserved a way of life that was sourced from the continents and countries abroad and it was home away from home, forged out of memory and dislocation,” she continues. “Asians were the newcomers. I am quietly surprised when people resist access to each other when all cultures are in fluid transition and movement.”

Banerjee gathers her materials from numerous sources. Her interest in using red cellophane as a material stems from the time before she turned to art, when she worked as a polymer chemist at Pennsylvania State University.

Both the finding and the seeking of materials is important to the work, she says. It is her method. Sometimes “it is a wild goose chase which can make you kneel to new realities. What you find sometimes finds you first. People give me things in faith to steer my driver’s wheel and that's very important as well."

The exhibition fits with HAM’s mission, says Nathanson, which is “to show art that is meaningful and resonates and speaks to the times.” While the museum is known for its exhibitions focused on contemporary interpretations of craft, “not all our exhibitions have a craft component. We love the intersection of craft and fine art – those definitions are no longer useful, as artists cross that line.”  

Among the materials Banerjee employs in her other works at HAM are sequins, electrical diagrams, painted patterns, a Victorian doll, handmade paper, a bronze-colored wall sconce, feathers, bulbs, and a vintage ceramic doll head. The subject matter includes figures in Edenic-like gardens exuding fluids from orifices, serpents, winged figures, flies and droplets. Her paintings are inspired by Indian miniature and Chinese silk paintings, and Aztec drawings. Childhood fables, such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” find their way into her work, where she takes liberties with the original meaning.

In images online, Banerjee wears colorful eyeglasses and her thick, dark, lustrous hair brings to mind a video from her PAFA exhibition in which she is receiving a coconut oil scalp massage and seems to have achieved Nirvana induced by the fingers working the fragrant tropical balm into her pores.

Banerjee, who lives and works in Manhattan, was in the South of France when interviewed for this story. She has been commissioned by Foundation Thalie, a Brussels-based private collection launching its second location in Arles. “The director, Nathalie Guiot, invited me to design a seven-foot round floor mosaic made of stone and glass,” she writes. Planned as part of the permanent collection, “the work will offer an inspirational note on climate” with “a tongue and teeth motifs swirling with the third eye in a tender green earth made unrecognizable. I am always in search of projects that realize the connectivity of body to building to world as containers that are leaky, entangled from inside to the outside, portals surrender.”