Migration’s Breath

Art-Agenda | 2015

March 2015

Exhibition review written by Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh.

In Rina Banerjee’s exhibition “Migration’s Breath,” the Indian-born, New York-based artist’s sculptures are like mystical creatures borne out of an enticing mixture of natural and commercial detritus—plastic, cowry shells, brightly colored ribbons, light bulbs, doll parts, feathers, rope. Her works on paper create contexts for the gods, monsters, and mortals that Banerjee depicts, giving glimpses into their stories. While the works evoke traditional narratives and fairytales, the materials themselves reflect the everything-at-once phenomena of Amazon, Alibaba, and Etsy. Banerjee sources her materials online before working with fabricators to produce armatures that she then populates with the diverse array of materials that give her figures life and energy.

The Singapore outpost of Ota Fine Art is located at Gillman Barracks, a cluster of nearly 20 art galleries—including the recently opened Centre for Contemporary Art—in one of the British army’s former colonial properties. There is a synergy between the commercial progression of the residue of British imperialism that codes this newly formed art precinct and the compelling, intermingling postcolonial narratives and motifs of Banerjee’s exhibition, drawn from the artist’s own immersion in West Bengali, Indian, and American cultures.

“Migration’s Breath” is presented in a gallery partitioned into two sections, each anchored by an artwork representing a significant mythic character mounted on the wall. On entering the gallery, visitors are confronted with a gold surface on which the mixed-media sculpture Mangroves of Alien and Native froze and foamed, rose and rose, opened and closed and one in all grew calm who knew (2014) is mounted. This sculptural creature simultaneously blends elements such as ornate tropical flowers with bright orange and pink blooms made of gauzy fabrics with fantastical anteater-like trunks covered in cowry shells that trip downward from the floral umbrella. On a pink mesh outgrowth rests a transparent purple gray orb, like a crystal ball with which this anthropomorphic flower could reveal secret futures or ponder fantastical pasts.

On the back wall of the second gallery, an imposing figure, She drew a premature prick, in a fluster of transgressions, abject by birth she new not what else to do with this untouchable reach, unknowable body as she was an ancient savage towed into his modern present (2011), holds court. The body of this sculpture has Classical proportions and is covered in ornate green and gold patterned silk, with a glass globe between its legs. This headless frame, modeled on a teenage female mannequin, is battle-ready with wings fashioned from ten animal tusks, clusters of white and ochre feathers, and a cone of cowry shells in the place of a head. On the wall to the right of the warrior figure hangs another alien floral composition with brightly colored blossoms, protruding arms that are at once vine- and limb-like.

Sharing this second space in the gallery are a half-dozen works on paper and prints that give a sense of what world Banerjee’s creatures might occupy. Hovering between abstraction and figuration, these works glow with vibrant colors and lively shapes, and are given fantastical titles suggesting grander narratives: The gene was his mule. Mendel with his peas in the monastery, in thick garden, made variety, made mischief while green ponds, unripe flower took to crossing, blended fluids so dominant was recessive (2014).

Naturally, the sculptures have an immediate presence; however, the works on paper are compellingly composed and even more mysterious. The three-dimensional works’ promiscuous approach to material feels contemporary in its echo of the online shops where their constituent parts are gleaned, but it is in Banerjee’s paintings that the characters in her work really come to life. In the works on paper, the consistency of the medium gives coherence to the multitude of cultural references Banerjee brings together, whereas the equally diverse source material of the sculptures better conjure the markets they are drawn from than the fictional worlds and stories they belong to.