Rina Banerjee Makes Migration Magical

Her Moist Breath warm with saliva and scent punctured mountain pleasured a thousand cultures of magnificent Migrations in Mist…

This evocative phrase announces Rina Banerjee’s exhibition “Migration’s Breath,” a collection of the New York-based, Indian-born artist’s enchanting sculptures, lithographs, and works on paper. The artist’s words introduce her preoccupation with migration, and her exploration of what “exotic” means in a contemporary context, after colonialism. Her latest pieces, displayed in Ota Fine Arts’s Singapore location, itself a meeting point of East and West, send the viewer on imagined journeys to places on the cusp of reality.

Banerjee’s delicate drawings on watercolor paper show the inked bodies of goddesses, birds, and beasts in chimerical compositions of heightened colors. Fascinated by the representations of landscapes and skies in Chinese and Tibetan painting, she draws as much on the ancient traditions of Indian and Himalayan art as on the outfits of ladies in uptown New York. Her sculptures seem to have been made out of the ravaged contents of princesses’ jewellery boxes or dress-up chests, with balancing parasols, wooden animals, shells, feathers, and sparkling saris.

Titles are often long, free-form refrains in Indian English, as though lifted from mythical texts: Ethnic and Race braided long hairs and coiled and entwined. Oh how it made and made, ate, ate in shad, slumbered and soiled her reflection to see this faked-nations make me small sweet cakes... begins one of the new works from 2014. But these texts are Banarjee’s own, their pan-cultural references flying out of her experiences of living in melting-pot cities from Kolkata to London. 

In a 2011 piece for Artforum, Banerjee wrote: “I dream of this willingness to close the gaps between cultures, communities, and places. I think of identity as inherently foreign; of heritage as something that leaks away from the concept of home––as happens when one first migrates.” Art, too, for Banerjee, brings an appealing kind of otherness, or flight away from home, “like a visitor trespassing.” To make art is to reinvent, she says, to be freed from the constraints of a singular place or identity. 

Hannah Gregory

Migration’s Breath” is on view at Ota Fine Arts, Singapore, Jan. 23–Mar. 21, 2015.

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