Rina Banerjee’s 2017 sculpture “Viola, from New Orleans…” takes its name from Viola Ida Lewis, a Black woman from the New Orleans neighborhood Tremé who, in 1906, married Joseph Abedin, a Bengali Muslim merchant. A skeletal assembly of readymade objects, the sculpture both mimics and distorts the body of a woman. Its materials are found throughout Banerjee’s sculptural practice: a Yoruba mask, steel wires, cowrie shells, Indian silks, sequins, rakes, and tangled threads.
The work’s title is in fact much longer. It continues: “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…,” and on from there. Here, we begin to glean parts of Viola’s story, and by extension, Joseph’s — he was a Bengali sailor who most likely jumped from a British company ship due to harsh labor conditions. After his marriage, ran a small imports business with his wife, selling “exotic” trinkets and objects from the East. Their story exemplifies the complexities of mobility, empire, and capitalism.
In an event held in April at Syracuse University (where Banerjee was recently a visiting professor), Gayatri Spivak repeated the artist’s own words of intent, “To make visible what cannot be explained by the Orient/Occident view of the world.” This practice often revolves around the narratives of commodities — and people — who travel, therefore obscuring the ideologically constructed notions of East and West. Both Banerjee and Spivak, a professor at Columbia University widely recognized for her contributions to postcolonial theory, were born in Calcutta; according to Spivak, they are both considered “visible diasporics” and represent “metropolitan, upper-class Bengalis” who arrived to the United States in the second half of the 20th century. For Spivak, Banerjee’s work complicates two frameworks: “the diasporic” — which has “no authenticity” according to Spivak — and “the idea of the West,” similarly “totally made up.”
Spivak describes Viola’s story as “class-marked,” alluding to the class position in colonial Bengal that led to Joseph Abedin’s migration and the couple’s occupation in New Orleans. But she also notes, “It isn’t necessary for the viewer to have the information.” A glance at “Viola,” the physical sculpture, does not necessitate a discussion of an interracial marriage in the early 20th-century American South. Nonetheless, through her titles and explanatory practice, Banerjee insists on pairing her creations with both history and an imagined narrative. From here, we can begin to follow the deeper threads of power, cultural reproduction, and imperial afterlives in her work.
These concepts are currently evident in Black Noodles at Perrotin Gallery, an exhibition featuring a range of Banerjee’s newer drawings and sculptures (“Viola” is not in the show). Black Noodles marks the artist’s first major solo show in New York, the city of her upbringing and her current home.
Earlier this month, Banerjee led me through the show, speaking about her experiences in the art world. It had been six years since her first showcase at the Venice Biennale, 16 years since her first ever solo show, and 23 years since the 2000 Whitney Biennial, her entrance into the contemporary art world.
The works in Black Noodles include the sculpture “Contagious Migrations” (which began as a critique of the Western discourse around AIDS) and drawings that interrogate the “dangerous temptations” of femininity. Many confront a recurring theme in Banerjee’s practice: the politics of the orientalizing gaze. The drawings focus on the female form reproduced, commodified, and displayed for an audience’s consumption.
As Sharmistha Ray wrote in 2009, “Banerjee’s exotic representations of Eastern icons further cast the Indian as a passive recipient of the foreigner’s gaze — which in the context of post-colonialism is the position occupied by the colonizer. The gaze is of an imperialist and patriarchal nature.”
Ray’s commentary appeared in a larger essay on the rise of South Asian diaspora art. Because Banerjee is Indian-American, or sometimes Bengali-American — she was born in West Bengal, India, and her mother was born in present-day Bangladesh — and because she moved across global metropolises, from Kolkata to London to New York, she is often considered within the categories of the diaspora or postcolonial artist. She currently serves as the postcolonial critic at the Yale School of Art, her alma mater, where she was the only South Asian student in her cohort.
Reflecting on these categories, she commented, “I think diaspora is less about whether it’s real or not, but rather contemplates the possibility of how culture is trafficked, commodified, shared, authenticated, rejected, policed, divided, and used as a tool to engage with groups of people as one community.”
The Perrotin show’s titular piece, from 2023, echoes one of the Banerjee’s most famous sculptures to date, “Take me, take me, take me…to the Palace of love” (2003), an 18-foot hot pink cellophane recreation of the Taj Mahal that clearly plays with the West’s exoticization of Eastern monuments — a pre-Raj, now national symbol transformed into a blown-up tourist souvenir. But in “Black Noodles,” the colorless dome is a wired, collapsible, winged object brought closer to the ground. For Banerjee, the clear, empty dome resembles “[bodily] tissue that has been drained,” blurring distinctions of skin color.
Reaching out of the dome are tentacles that meet the viewer at waist height, capped with milk glass and entangled in “raw” human hair and rope. On the ground, these threads are scattered with cowrie shells and horseshoe crabs, blending the organic and synthetic. The marine rope, an emblem of the shipping industry, is another recurring material in Banerjee’s sculptures. “Copenhagen had the first industry that monopolized the trade of ropes, and its wealth was made on rope,” she explained. “That rope is made from jute, and jute came from places like Bengal.”
The sculpture “Black Noodles” alludes to what Banerjee describes as “risky” conversations around commerce and appropriation. “Raw Indian hair” pieces are commonly imported and worn by Black women in the United States and beyond, symbolizing what Banerjee sees as an “idealized, racialized standard of beauty.” But the purchased hair also carries particular class and caste connotations in South Asia. The large majority of India’s hair supply is sourced from the practice of waste hair picking — low-income women gathering and collecting their own hair to sell, and waste-pickers sifting through garbage and gutters for valuable strands. Throughout the subcontinent, waste management maintains historic links to caste oppression. The hair’s collection reflects the violence of hierarchies long present within South Asia, complicating the narrative of objects from “the East” facing exploitation only in their interactions with “the West.” While Banerjee’s practice is often framed through this fragile East/West binary, it also necessarily implicates caste and class.
The questions prompted by Black Noodles arise throughout much of Banerjee’s work. How do objects gain and lose value through circulation? When does a cheap object in an online marketplace obtain worth in the art market — and how does today’s financialized capitalism distinguish between those forms of commodification? What forms of violence, labor, and exploitation are on display in her work, and what are merely suggested? Who is compensated?
The sculpture “Black Noodles” stemmed from a years-long interest in domes and, in particular, their multiple resonances in Mughal architecture, Western national monuments, and nature. Banerjee herself invests in a long and laborious art practice — acquiring materials on web marketplaces, spending hours weaving rope and hair. Yet the work — like much of her art — suggests the shadow of a much longer history.
Rina Banerjee: Black Noodles continues at Perrotin Gallery (130 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 10. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.