Art

Imagining Utopia in Rina Banerjee’s Whimsical Cornucopias

Cobbled together from materials including cowrie shells, Yoruba masks, horns, Japanese mosquito nets, and crocodile heads, Rina Banerjee’s fantastical sculptures present a utopian vision of globalism.

Rina Banerjee, “The promise of self rule, played on her mind’s paradise, paralysed her curiosity and then only had she the will to erect her sitting beauty from sleep” (2008) (all works 2018, images courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts)

PHILADELPHIA — Twelve electric Chinese altar lamps crown a thin, towering sculpture, titled “The promise of self rule … ” (2008). In their pink glow, I’m six years old again, standing beside my mother in an old Shanghai temple complex that’s been transformed into a kind of bazaar filled with tchotchkes. You could find all the zippers in the world in those smoky, maze-like aisles. I count plastic beads into a ziplock bag, rolling them around in my palm to see them shimmer. I haven’t thought of this in years, yet here it is — a vivid recollection sparked by Rina Banerjee: Make Me A Summary of the World, the New York-based artist’s first major museum exhibition in the United States.

Displayed in the hallowed halls of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Banerjee’s assemblage sculptures are complemented by videos and works on paper — fanciful depictions of women and mythical beasts, made of stamped images and clouds of iridescent ink. Her material lists include cowrie shells, Yoruba masks, horns, Japanese mosquito nets, and crocodile heads, among other things. She brings a vast range of global cultures into the fray; most viewers will find something familiar. She insists on the potential of common objects to trigger lyrical, personal sense-memories — and to elude singular definition.

Installation view (left to right): Rina Banerjee, “In Full Blooms She Made All the World Sweat with Unnatural Flora,” (2006), Ink, acrylic, enamel painting on paper, 29 x 21 1/2 in. “The world as burnt fruit—When empires feuded for populations and plantations, buried in colonial and ancient currency a Gharial appeared from an inky melon—hot with blossom sprang forth to swallow the world not yet whole as burnt fruit” (2009)

Much like their freewheeling, rambling titles, these motley, Frankenstein-like sculptures embrace wonderful ugliness. Each fantastical shape is assembled from hundreds of objects. There are gigantic, alien flowers that tremble with the weight of glistening glass bottles. A billowing parachute-like form hangs above a grand staircase, tethered to a winged figure with rakes for hands.

Banerjee sometimes uses precious objects, but combines them with mass-produced things, like light bulbs or wire mesh. Fake eyelashes become as valuable as Indian silks. The largest sculpture in the exhibition, “Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of love” (2003), is an 18-foot recreation of the Taj Mahal, framed in an electric pink plastic. Walking inside it is like entering another universe through rose-colored glasses, made of dark wood and red moss.

Installation view: Rina Banerjee, “Her captivity was once someone’s treasure and even pleasure but she blew and flew away took root which grew, we knew this was like no other feather, a third kind of bird that perched on vine intertwined was neither native nor her queens daughters, a peculiar other.” (2011)

These works are meditations on the internet as a kind of cornucopia. Objects once prized, colonized, and killed for — such as silks and cowrie shells used for currency — have become banal and easily available. By mixing these materials in such strange, sci-fi-esque sculptures, she resists their potential to fetishize and orientalize.

Pictures reduce these works to the forms they crudely resemble. I didn’t understand their magic until seeing them up close. Standing before them, I’m immediately arrested by their consuming, kaleidoscopic presence. I feel like I’m looking through a microscope: each intricately placed seed, shell, and shred of silky gauze draws me in. The figurative, folklore-ish forms they take on feel like an afterthought. Like an Arcimboldo portrait made of vegetables, Banerjee’s sculptures allow objects to remain as they are. She points to the potential for a metal shard to resemble a rib, or the fantasy of a plastic bead.

By drawing from various cultural histories, Banerjee’s sculptures present a utopian view of globalism. They’re affirmations that people of color will also inherit the future, and will retain traditions — even as the architectures and materials of those traditions shift and meld through diaspora.

Installation view: Rina Banerjee: Make Me A Summary of the World at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Rina Banerjee, “Viola, from New Orleans-ah, an African Woman, was the 19th century’s rescue worker, a global business goods raker, combed, tilled the land of Commerce, giving America a certain extra extra excess culture, to cultivate it, making home for aliens not registered, made business of the finer, finer, had occupations, darning thread not leisure with reason and with luster, in ‘peek a book’ racial disguises preoccupied in circulating commerce, entertaining white folks, pulling and punching holes in barriers, place that where was once barren, without them, white banks made of mustard and made friendly folks feel home, welcomed and married immigrants from far noted how they been also starved, fled from servitude and colonial dangers, ships like dungeons, pushing coal in termite wholes, churning fire, but always learning, folding, washing, welcomed as aliens. She wandering, hosting, raising children connected to new mobilities and most unusual these movements in Treme’, New Orleans was a incubating, enmeshed embedded in this silken cocoon when she land, she’s came to be parachute mender, landed those blank immigrant peddlers from Hoogali network of newcomers,” (2017), Murano glass horns, Indian rakes, seed beads, steel, Yoruba African mask, oyster shells, cowrie shells, Charlotte dolls, polyester horse hair trim, Korean silks, Indian silks, vintage Kashmir shawls, French wire Ferris wheel, Congolese elbow bangles, colonial mirror sconces, Japanese seed glass beads, sequins, threads.

Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World continues at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102) through March 31. The exhibition is curated by Jodi Throckmorton, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Lauren Schell Dickens, curator at the San José Museum of Art.

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