I met Rina at her studio in The Garment District in New York one Saturday morning in March. Rina is a skilled storyteller and as we sat down to talk about her practice, we touched upon many different subjects that in the wake of this political tumult felt more relevant than ever. We talked about how the art world changed its values in a relatively short time due to globalization, and how this impacted Rina’s practice from when she was a student at Yale, up until the present day. We talked about her experience growing up as an immigrant, and how this made her want to create a language of her own through her work. Rina Banerjee was born in Calcutta, in India, in 1963 and grew up in London and New York. She is currently based in New York.
Living Content The main characters in your work are often very feminine. Can you tell me more about them?
Rina Banerjee The feminine is an element that exists in everything, everything prescribes to that vocabulary that we call feminine. I’m stretching that to say that it’s not just a source that comes out of women. It’s something that has been latent and innate to all living things, including plants. There are some plants and trees we prescribe as feminine because of the way we see their boundaries, but I don’t think that these boundaries are natural. I think that all things have a feminine approach, a feminine expression. What’s exciting about contemporary art is that we are allowed to relocate these ideas we were embraced by, but embraced in the confinement and sometimes in the safety of calling it ‘female expression’.
So, I think that’s very much a vocabulary of what is physical in my work. I’m not only talking about feminism, I’m also redefining what masculinity is. Women have masculine expression as well, and I think that they’re not separated in the natural world, they mingle, they interact, they corrupt each other. My materials are all about that kind of corruption so that it allows it to flower in a way that’s never flowered before, to really explore avenues of thinking that were once restricted in terms of our intellectual emotional capacity.
LC I can see that in your practice and I think that’s a very necessary process that we have to undo – especially with everything that is happening today in the world. It’s definitely something that will take a lot of work to be redefined.
RB Yes, and I think that a lot of it has to do with our newfound mobility. I’m an example of an immigrant, so I’ve always had the interest of knowing every place in the world. I didn’t want to be defined by my home as being Indian or defined by my residence as being a New Yorker. As proud as I am of being both those things, I feel like I can be more things now because I travel all the time. I travel through the internet, I travel physically, I travel when I go see friends who are from a different culture. What they believe in, what they share with me, and even what they don’t share with me; all these things become very contagious – in the same way laughter is contagious. And once you start enjoying that laughter you realize ‘hey I want more and more of this’.
We all have these neighborhoods in New York City where you go from one culture to another. And then we have a very contained group of people like our girlfriends, our families. But it doesn’t stop there: you don’t compartmentalize that feature that is about you – that actually becomes more free when you’re with a group. You bring yourself to other situations, groups, and ‘corrupt’ them. You change the dynamics of how you handle children, people who are not artists, and other communities that are of their own: the group of engineers, the group of doctors, the filmmakers. Filmmakers are close to, but very different than visual artists who work with physical things. For me it’s always the physical things that come first, and I think this is something that we’re always going to return to because more and more we live in our bodies.
LC Your sculptures are very material. It seems that the entire process of sourcing what goes into them is extremely important.
RB Other people go to retail spaces and they see what the store is selling. I see it as a material for my art. I got very bored with going to an art supply store very fast. When you go to stores, most of the retail that is in the street is looking at the female customer. I was thinking of all this money that is being made in this area, in The Garment District. When you see museums like the Cartier Museum, the Louis Vuitton foundation, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. All these institutions were impacted by fashion, fashion that was created primarily for female customers. And yet, they were so squeamish about giving it value in art. So when I go to a store I actually see these materials not just as a dress or as shoes, I also see the materials that they were made of, where they came from, and how culture moves quietly and delicately through a fashion that seems very normative. I’m also really interested in the medical industry because now the medical industries are really aware that humans want to control their bodies. I don’t think it’s a negative thing, I think that’s how our mind naturally works: we don’t like our nose, we don’t like our breasts. It’s not even so much that we don’t like it, but we envision that it should be this or that way. In some sense I would use the word ‘curate’– people like to curate everything. But the first person who speaks or steps out of line from what is normal, is also an explorer. I think that it can be a very positive thing.
LC You have an important retrospective that will open this year, in Fall, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and that will travel to other institutions. What will you be focusing on in this show?
RB I’m very excited about that. I think the most important thing for me is to see my largest sculptures up. They can be two story high and big, but yet very feminine in that delicate way (again, if we can kidnap the word ‘delicate’ and ‘fragile’ to be feminine–which I think needs to be dismantled, or challenged.)
LC Can you tell me more about your paintings? And do you see them as undoing connotations of words associated to femininity like ‘delicate’ and ‘fragile’?
RB You know, there was a time when I was a graduate student in the ‘90s, where people would say that painting is almost dead because we had video, we had the Internet, and media performance art was beginning to take precedence. Now, we’re finding out that painting is not dead after all. And the issue was that painting had to be referencing painting historically: specifically those 300 years, 400 years, of European painting. If you didn’t reference a painter when you were painting, and you didn’t say ‘this is the source and my work is engaged with these traditions of paintings from Europe, from Germany, from England, or from America’, then you weren’t painting. At that time I made a political decision to call my paintings ‘drawings’ because drawings were the stepsister of paintings. Drawing in the academia was not ‘a school’. At Yale University you had ‘the school of painting’, and you had ‘the school of sculpture’, but you didn’t have ‘the school of drawing’. It was interesting to find out when I was at Yale, that the reason for that, at least in that tradition, was because drawing was not seen as intellectual, and because drawing was done by women. Given that drawing and illustration were very close, when women started attending Yale, they were only allowed to attend for book design.
LC This is not a coincidence. Darja Bajagić, a friend who I also interviewed for Living Content, was in the painting department at Yale. Her medium did not really fit in the “painting category” and the subject of her work really defied the faculty. I remember that she had a huge argument with Robert Storr, the head of the department.
RB They had a lot of problems. And specifically with people of color because they were aware of other traditions of making, that modern art, which I believe Robert Storr is a champion of, does not acknowledge. So when I say the word ‘acknowledge’ that means that the whole history of making gets excluded from art. And art history. We’re on the brink of making that more visible now, which is a very exciting time. It’s not a time of excluding men, it’s a time when men can explore who they really are. They’ve been excluding themselves. I think that’s the difference I feel between maybe early waves of feminism and the most recent wave of feminism. In many ways when I went to school I was very much ignored and I was very happy that I could do whatever I wanted.
LC Really? How come?
RB Well I really felt empathy for the guys who had to champion and be the soldiers of this tradition that had to live on and never change. And I was like ‘OK; I get to do whatever I want in my studio’. Being South-Asian–they didn’t know how to read my work because they only would talk about the work in terms of its Indian-ness. To them, Indian contemporary art didn’t exist at that time in 1995.
LC I see, they had a limited knowledge.
RB They were not ready for the world! They were not educated for the world and we’re all in that same position. It’s a struggle but, you know, it’s time to learn and time to enjoy more of what the world is about, and what we, as individuals, can be. And I think that kind of excitement and positivism was missing from my faculties’ vision of the world. They thought it was going to be anarchy. I remember my British professor Andrew Forge saying: ‘There will be chaos if we have multiple traditions of knowledge. Where will we start?’
RB We laugh about it now but they were scared.
LC People are looking for this kind of cultural diversity now: biennials, triennials, the entire art world thrives on this. I mean, of course, it’s a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. But it’s something that definitely opened a lot of doors for dialogue between different cultures.
RB I have done 15 biennials and if it were not for the biennials I wouldn’t have had a career. I think it’s interesting that in New York a lot of people talk about how biennials are commercial, art fairs are commercial, and the New York art community is not commercial. I find that… strangely… kind of unaware of what commercial means. If you could not be classified as the perfect breeding for an artist, you could not be part of the art world. If you were from a village in India you couldn’t just be an Indian artist. Maybe less than 1 percent of the population has access to becoming an artist in the way we understand it: through galleries, museums, art fairs. Now, that’s changing. Indigenous people from Australia have a contemporary art career–and it doesn’t have to look like Jackson Pollock’s career. They can redefine the whole definition of what a career is and still make a livelihood. You don’t have to take Indigenous woman and man, and bring them to New York and have a New York gallery for them to have a career. They can live wherever they choose to. And I think that freedom is very essential. But I’ll tell you: people are scared because what does it do to real estate in New York if other places exist? If other cultures exist? People are very short sighted like that – they think that all is about loss: they’re thinking how this is going to dismantle what the economic system is. But beyond this, there’s vast freedom. Artists do this all the time: we try to imagine something we can’t imagine. And that’s what people are asked to do. So it’s quite scary. It’s only because artists are trained to love to find joy that exploration. If you ask an artist to imagine something they’ve never thought of, they get excited about that.
LC Can you tell me a bit about the titles that you’re using for your works? I see them as an entrance into these complex worlds that you’re creating.
RB I love the way you put it. It’s just like the way I think of culture: it’s a way to enter a different house. It may not be your culture, and in that way, I feel like language has always been a very clumsy situation for me as an immigrant. I left India when I was three years old, and I learned how to speak English pretty much the same time other people did who were English. I did not know I was an immigrant when I was 3 years old or what an identity was. During that time of maturing and developing, I was always told that I was not speaking English. Even as I was speaking. Those were very colonial motifs, differentiating people who look differently than what is prescribed as English. To be self-conscious, or also self-aware (which is a positive thing) is to really think about language. I took that to mean that language is very sensitive to how we use it. Accents especially, were policed during that time, as they continue to be. Part of learning a language is not only the accent, but your body movements, the hand gestures of another culture. So I found that reusing language–the English language –in different ways, whether we call it poetry or maybe something else, was very exciting for my work. Because I’m really addressing how does language and visual work together. I’m exploring that with the viewer. I’ve given my language a certain freedom. I call it ‘my language’–other people call it poetry, some people call it titles. Sometimes I think of words and I hear things on the news, I hear things on the Internet, or in the spoken language, and I pick it up and I bring it to the studio, and then I think of a work that I will be making around a title.
LC Is the relationship between your sculptures and your drawings as interchangeable? Do the sculpture evolve from the drawings or the other way around?
RB They’re in conversation. They’re the same room. And they’re certainly inside me. I’m fascinated by the sculpture that goes on the wall. I was familiar with it in terms of the sacred space: in one’s home and in churches you always find some kind of altar. I didn’t grow up religious but I loved these religious rituals: I wish I could invite this participation with the sculpture. I am also really fascinated by how people make and dress these sculptures whether it is a Mother Mary, a saint, or other entity, and I like how they take this figurative sculpture and cover it. Dressing the sculpture is when you invite in all kinds of materials to interact: then you can unravel these materials step by step. They can help you visualize how you can take the sculpture apart, how you can see inside the sculpture. And that means that the sculpture has a hidden body that could be naked, that could be undressed. I’m inviting all that dialogue that we associate with the physical body.
LC That sounds very exciting to unravel. And, finally, what would you advise for people to read or to see?
RB I suggest tourism within your own neighborhood. We’re always looking at places to go that are being sold to us. But why not see your own neighborhood as a treasure ? The architecture, the people. Sometimes it’s easy when you’re in New York City because there are these brass plaques that tell you ‘this famous writer lived here’. And all of a sudden the building has more meaning. I think we have so much more resource with the communication and social media to really be informed and know more about the neighborhoods we live in.