by Urvi Kothari
Art can be defined as a world of ambiguous thoughts but infinite interpretations, expansive imagination but strong underlying meanings, and complex contexts but simple messages. This sentence holds true to the woman who bears multiple hats, Indian-American artist, Rina Banerjee - a humanist, an international artist and a post-colonial feminist scholar. This very imaginative world came to life in the floors of the Hunterdon Art Museum, New Jersey. The space has been converted into a curated territory where the unfamiliar meets the familiar. There is an air of magic and surrealism with a hint of realism. Banerjee shares, “These works that join to tell a story of my journey and experience of the rise of conservative politics around human struggle to express the intelligence of the heart, it’s will to survive and surmount open oppression.”
The exhibition titled Blemish, In Deep Pink Everyplace Begins, instinctively urges one to initiate the very act of interrogating. Interestingly, these could be questions we quite rarely ask! The sense of curiosity leaves the audiences in a grey area and pushes one into realms of further interpretation and introspection. Introducing a perspective to this title, Banerjee says, “I came to realise that identity is a deposit for power and empowerment and can shape cultural transformation. The title directs this grouping of artworks! Blemish is often noticed as a discoloration of the skin, marks that can identify an individual like a birth mark. It is noticed, recorded and acknowledged as a dominant symbol of identity.” Breaking the societal stigmas and encouraging open discourses, Banerjee’s contemporary art is here to make a socio-political statement. “When the skin is dark or yellow in its entirety, it no longer stands as a blemish but a defining character of a group of people. We rely on this visible characteristic to understand a race, community, country or culture. What we can also reconsider is that we are all of that pink colour of flesh underneath. In an X-Ray vision we would be reminded of our real humanness. These mixed media works are visibly different but together speak of many ways we find oppression lurking in our path unable to detect its shadow,” adds the artist who was born in Kolkata in India and now lives in New York.
Departing from the art exhibition’s title, Banerjee wittily plays with the poetics of words as she captions her artworks in a meandering language. These consciously long but strainful captions make one want to read and re-read. Complementing to this very ambiguous play of semantics, the sculptor’s visual lexicon is equally complexed and layered. Her sculptures are a strange juxtaposition of many found objects - light bulbs, mirror, thread, shells, polyester banana leaves, beads, spoon, grocery bag, to list a few. The combination of these objects pushes limits of human imagination and redefines the extent of artistic creativity. They are indeed enigmatic!
While crafting this powerful imagery, Banerjee continues in her endeavour to convey important and pressing messages to the society far and above. ‘Sex Bait….’ Is one such visual articulation to combat racism in the society we live in. Delayering this sculptural rendition, Banerjee elaborately shares, “Separatist beliefs organise to capture differences - remove free movement of people in order to create a transparent difference. Same sex joining is tabooed as well. The bait here is the idea of the exception to this rule. In explicit contrast to separatist beliefs is the exotic. The exotic is a taboo. The sculpture displayed is an Italian gold candelabra on wall, crowned with ostrich feather duster of grey-brown. Centered below is a ceramic art, a miniature face of a negro man. A black Murano glass horn (Italian virility) simultaneously charges this ornamental arm rest of light bulbs with a phallic horn and blue balls. I foresee this assemblage as a trophy of masculinity in conflict with racial differences.”
The grand finale of this exhibition is when one is led to a room of awe, mystery and drama. The protagonist of this sculpture is a beautifully carved female bust, made of marble. Facing towards the entrance of this room, this calm and poised female sculptural installation unwraps the notion of a common dichotomy - beauty and ugliness. From there strings radiate to the diversely shaped mirrors that hang in a salon style on the wall aback. Banerjee shares, “The threads, from her head sink while stretching to be found in view of each mirror. The piano stool, the bust rests on, with claw foot and gross barely animal horns bring attention to her oppositional blandness as feminine and frozen. All that is colour is movement and all that fades in turn is captured by patriarchy as object denied of a life force. The faithful who follows feminine tropes are rewarded as mere reflections. This is a chance to glide by in the shadow, colourlessly frozen in reflection never to walk away from it.”
Blemish, In Deep Pink Everyplace Begins mysteriously unpacks common ideas of gender, identity, beauty and space. It contributes to integral conversations of mental health and human psyche. The curation focuses on the primal idea of that ‘moment of self-awareness’, that we fail to recognise while trying to become who we are. Banerjee ends by saying, “The future depends on this moment when it can be created.”
The exhibition is on view at Hunderdon Art Museum in New Jersey, United States, till September 4, 2022.