Global Conversations: Rina Banerjee, artist

Rina Banerjee is one of the most important artists of the Indian diaspora living in the United States.

Born in Calcutta, India in 1963, Banerjee grew up in London, England before moving to the United States, where she lived in Philadelphia and New York. She graduated from Case Western University with a BSc in polymer engineering, and worked as a research chemist for several years before deciding to focus on art. She received her Master’s in Fine Art from Yale University in 1995.

Banerjee’s work has been exhibited all over the world, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, and is featured in many public and private collections such as the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, France, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Banerjee lives and works in New York and Philadelphia.

‘Make Me A Summary Of The World’ is the first in-depth examination of Banerjee’s work to go on show in North America. This exhibition runs at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) until March 31, 2019.

What was the inspiration behind the title of your latest exhibition, ‘Make Me A Summary Of The World’?

This title is taken from the name of one of the sculptures in the show. The curator Jodi Throckmorton and myself were looking for something that addressed the source and scope of my work, where I get materials and inspiration from.

I wanted to make sure this exhibition talks about what it means to participate in human culture, rather than one specific culture. I wanted to show that curiosity to know who your neighbors are, to feel part of the world you live in beyond your own address.

Growing up, I always lived in very diverse communities, like New York. This experience and other cities I’ve visited have made me understand the value of having a constant flow of knowledge and cultures coming through an urban site.

‘Make Me A Summary Of The World’ is the first major retrospective of your art in North America. What makes Philadelphia an ideal setting for this exhibition?

Philadelphia is known for being the beginning of our American history. As an early colony, it has become known as a hub for understanding that specific history. We really have to come to terms with how the project of democracy, freedom of speech, et cetera, holds up to the times we live in. An old city is a great place to reflect on that heritage and where we are today.

Philadelphia is also a place of commerce, and in American history commerce is not just about the exchange of money, but the exchange of people, for better or worse. We’ve developed to understand the impact of that exchange, the ethical considerations there. Today we can see the mobility of people contributing to a larger, healthier economy that is interdependent.

The exhibition brings together pieces from throughout your career. Which piece in the exhibition is the most meaningful to you now?

With this exhibition, I can see my work over a long stretch of time sitting together in one place. Many of these pieces are really relevant to the issues that keep me up at night, and I feel the issues that surround a work mean more than how it looks, because it is the materials that reflect those issues that then become a sculpture.

If I had to pick out one piece, it would be ‘A World Lost.’ It’s a large-scale sculpture installation with a rising dome and a map of the world. Parts of the world I’ve visited are mapped out, but there are other parts that remain blank spaces. This symbolizes something I think about a lot now, which is water. We haven’t really understood the value of water and its distribution, this whole ecological system that is so vulnerable to our usage. ‘A World Lost’ began in 2013 with the idea of coming to understand places far from where I live – like China and India – which are disparate places, not connected as one country, but they still share a river. You can’t stop a river from flowing between states just because your politics wants to set up boundaries.

Understanding rivers and the geological space we share makes you think how foolish we’ve been to think in terms of boundaries. These boundaries were created out of commerce, but ultimately, they undermine commerce, which is itself a vehicle for human connection – we often miss the whole point of commerce. In the end, the main achievement of commerce is a continuity and communication between people, which then allows us to become caretakers of the earth.

In your installations, you use a huge range of materials sourced from different places. What sort of message are you trying to convey to audiences by using these different materials?

The materials I choose come from different places, a variety of places. You can find real connections even in difference. I forage for things without a destination in mind, whether in the course of my travels or just in my everyday life.

Doing that requires mobility, to be able to move through the world and take care of yourself in the world. I have the freedom of that mobility, which allows me to discover these incredible things human minds and human hands have made. In modernism, we spend a lot of time thinking about man-made materials, but there is such a large world contained in this one planet, so many parts of this place that we’re resistant to.

Real vastness, as I see it, is the vastness of our mind and ability to adapt and recognize associations between things that look very different as objects and materials. They can resonate when your mind is put to the task of putting them together as a coherent piece that has meaning. As an artist I’m always looking for the meaning and reflection of our humanity, why we continue to want to exist, to grow, and to reach out.

You have an international background, and you’ve worked in both science and the arts. How has this diversity influenced your work?

I’ve lived in a few places, primarily urban places. I spent part of my childhood in London, England, and then spent my elementary and middle school years in Philadelphia, and then moved to New York.

What this allowed me to understand is that our route through the world makes sense in terms of a larger journey, to exercise our freedom and our access to choices. You see young people still settling in places they’re familiar with, because the world is not safe and not as embracing of travelers and curiosity and changes, so we don’t always have the choices I think are essential to feeling in love with the world. You have to think, where would your residence and education be if you could have all those choices? Choices can only happen if you push and stretch the imagination to picture more things, and art allows you to think about stretching that imagination.

Have any of your experiences in Philadelphia influenced your art?

Philadelphia is such a beautiful city - the architecture is amazing and so well preserved. Those old buildings are a bridge to understand where we’re going now, and to really think about the craftsmanship that went into those buildings. I really feel aware of the absence of craftsmanship, which is something I think we’re trying to revive. Philadelphia is a place that welcomes artisans and craftsmen to settle and pursue their practice, because it’s still an affordable place to live. I’ve experienced that here – there’s a culture of making and building that is harder to find in other places. Nowadays, most retail places that stock well-made things tend to source those things from abroad, particularly from East Asia.

With the colonial era buildings, you can see the aesthetic of craftsmanship in their facades, but there is also that colonial ideology there – there is a strange kind of division between that craftsmanship and the fact that these buildings were constructed in a time of xenophobia.

Interview conducted by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association