Rina Banerjee is an American artist and sculptor, born in Calcutta and raised in London and New York. Although she began her professional career as a polymer research chemist upon graduating from Case Western University in 1993, Banerjee received her M.F.A. from Yale in 1995 in painting and printmaking. Banerjee’s work has been featured both nationally and internationally, from New York to Tokyo to Milan. Currently, Banerjee’s retrospective “Make me a Summary of the World” is featured at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
The Politic: How did you first become interested in art?
Rina Banerjee: I think my family always appreciated art and we had paintings on the wall. Both of my parents could paint and draw, so that was a very important early exposure to it sort of as lifestyle—a sort of literacy. It was important to be aware of the visual. I think South Asian culture can be very visual—people make things, they recycle things. They didn’t have to wait for the recycling movement for that to happen and that’s part of crafting things, and mending things, and not sort of throwing them away. I think that making—which was such a pleasure and also a necessity and a way of life—puts you in that frame of mind of making art.
I think later I switched from the sciences to art because of the sort of authorship that a single individual can have, whereas science is much more collaborative and you depend on… institutional backing to…create your research. In art, it is a much more independent enterprise, [and] I liked that.
How did you make the transition from chemist to an artist?
I think you are searching for who you are and what you want to do for the rest of your life [when you are] in those four years in undergraduate school. It does take you on a journey and it does take a while to be independent from all those voices, that [include pressures from] family members and parents and culture [about] what is acceptable, what is taboo, and what you are fearful of in the culture, the community that you grew up in, and the part of the US that you grew up in.
All those sort of things impact how you perceive yourself, and I think the four years you have to develop yourself from high school until the end of undergraduate school allows you to have a …view of who you are or who you might be. Towards the end of undergraduate school, I realized that I really needed art to be the way I lived and the way I thought.
Can you tell us about the coursework you took in college?
As an engineering student, you had to take a requirement of extracurricular subjects, and my subjects were anthropology and drawing. I took one class of drawing and two classes of anthropology and English was also required. I seemed to have loved all those other subjects rather than my science more. So I ended up asking myself, before I go to sleep or in the morning, what is it that I want to do? And it really wasn’t science.
It begins to talk to you about who you are and what you see yourself doing for the rest of your life, which is a long time. I really didn’t experience a lot of art in undergraduate school, but I remember leaving New York City, where I grew up, [to go to school] and feeling a loss, because we were so used to the arts and were surrounded by the culture of the New York City.
When I was in Cleveland studying for my engineering degree, there was one museum and weekends came and I saw myself going there to the museum. I went to the orchestra as well. I liked those things and I wanted them to be a really integral part of how I experienced life.
What challenges did you face in making the transition? How did you establish yourself in the artist community?
It was very hard because there is always a chorus of voices—including your family, people you don’t know, people you do know—telling you: “You should do this, you should do that.” And I think engineering instantly has that response from people: “That’s great. That’s safe. You’ll get paid.” It’s a very middle-class approach to your life where [you ask yourself]: Will you get paid? Will you be able to survive?
At that juncture, it was very unusual to find women in engineering. I was probably one of the first one or two to enter into that specific type of engineering. It had its challenges to deal with dominantly-male teachers and deans. The whole academic system was saturated with men. So if you wanted to do the sciences, they would almost always say, “After you take your first few engineering courses, maybe you should consider nursing.” That was really the attitude for women’s education: that it was unnecessary education and that included both rich, the poor, and the middle class. What we all shared is that struggle for women to create a need for education. All those things were sort of new at the time.
When people heard that I wanted to go to art, they thought, “Oh, you just want to quit school and do nothing with your life” I think that’s still a general attitude when people, especially women, go into art and I hear that from my students still now, from women students.
How has your background in engineering influenced your work?
It’s very important in the arts to be aware of physics if you are making sculpture, chemistry if you are thinking about painting. It was really important to know about fabrics and sewing from my mom. I [learned] so much about textiles and what makes fabric stronger which I… from my mom. [This knowledge] was very essential… because she was practicing both engineering and chemistry in the kitchen. I didn’t know that until I was an engineering student.
When I was an art student, I realized how valuable all the things I had learned from my mother were. I learned how to build things from my mom as well. She was very handy with tools and very self-sufficient.
We have this absurd idea that one thing is unconnected to another but everything we learn in life [is intertwined].
How have your roots in India and Calcutta in particular influenced your work?
Strangely…there is a lack of funding [for the arts in the United States] and a lack of understanding that it is so valuable. It was a kind of marvel to me that a country that is so poor [like India] has funding for artists. How did that happen to us in the US? We don’t have funding from the government. There is a Ministry of Culture [in India] and there are artist residencies that have funding.
I don’t really know why things are so different but I just think knowing a foreign place, any place, is very essential to understanding what can be in the place you live and to question things. Having knowledge of India allowed me to question the various things we take for granted, or have gotten used to. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is not a good proverb for artists.
How did you create your own unique style of art?
That was a very important question I kept asking myself as I was developing: “Why is this my work?” I think you keep asking that and at some point you tire of asking that and you have to do a lot of work, and make a lot of work, and I think it comes to you before you know it. It is a subconscious kind of release of who you are.
Even in the morning, when you go to pick your clothes, you have to ask yourself: “Is this really me? Is this who I am now? Have I changed? Am I wearing this because everyone else is? Do I want to try something else?” I think the trying, and trying different things, allows you to find what sits well with you and it might be some kind of combination of things that has not been ever selected by anyone else. I think that happens to everyone naturally but we don’t often push ourselves to go to the extreme [of asking ourselves these questions directly].
Are there any artists or pieces that have had a profound impact on you?
I think I didn’t grow up so much thinking about other artists specifically as heroes or [thinking about other artists’] complete body of work. I really gravitated towards the making of stuff and how things are made. I think that’s why I really had the opportunity to find what my specific voice was.
You have to remember even as I was a graduate student, not one female artist was offered as something to look at. I went through art history classes and [when it came to women artists, we studied] Mary Cassatt and that it was it. I think later on, by the time I reached just before graduate school, I really liked the work of the barrio artists and many of them Latino artists and African-American artists. By the time I was at Yale for [an M.F.A.] in painting, Eva Hesse was [taught.] I really loved her work and I really liked more physically-made things rather than [relief painting]. At the time [of that realization] I was in painting school, so that was a bit of a challenge. But those are not things that you can always control.
In your opinion, what has been your greatest success or achievement as an artist? What has been your greatest challenge?
I think sometimes your challenges seem by your own mind as your achievements. The hardest challenge is to communicate what my work is interested in, which is very different from saying what my work is about, which is very didactic. I realized that it is very important to see art-making as research, that you are searching for something and learning all the time.
For me, the achievement was being able to communicate both in spoken language and in the physical object or painting… That is always the final check on whether you have achieved something in any subject area. You become a participant and [the time when] you have been able to send your message about what you are thinking about—about what preoccupied your years of making art—and to find other people interested in the same things is a kind of magical moment. That’s what I think is an achievement.
You work in multiple different media. How do you utilize each medium to portray the meaning of each individual work?
I chose mediums that make me curious about a longer history that we’ve had as human beings on the planet. Things that have lived before us are always curious to me. I don’t know if I choose things because I mean one thing, but they become more valuable to me because they mean many things. There is such a deep investment in our culture (and that doesn’t mean Indian culture, that means human culture) in a certain object. It could be a functional object, it could be a non-functional object, and they recur [and are used differently throughout] time.
An example is a seashell that is used as a spoon—it is just so amazing that we found use for so many things that are just laying around like a seashell. [Another example is] a gourd which has been used to bottle water. I think it is just amazing that people have survived… more than survived: [have] really been amazingly resourceful with the earth [in a way] that has both been productive and destructive.
Is there any way in which you see yourself as using your work to reflect current political and cultural themes in society today?
Well, there are things that I didn’t imagine would become so pivotal in the way that we see our future on the planet. The communication that is available to us now globally was not really [available]—I came from a period of time when [we] were still mailing letters in these blue forms that limited how much you could say if you were mailing it to a foreign country—and so now, I think it’s pretty amazing the level of communication we have access to. That’s only the beginning.
Once you have the tools [of communication], you have to learn how to use those tools in a way that is productive and responsible, and I think we have yet to learn that. We are growing because of it… The tools come first and then we mature as a culture.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a public project and that’s a big challenge—I have never done a public project before, something that will be out in nature. So there is a beautiful natural park called Calypso Park and it is close to Paris and I am trying to think about a sculpture for it. They welcomed me, invited me to do something. I wasn’t able to start working on it until this year. I am really excited about that. It functions where animals [will be able to] find use out of it. That is something that I am going to be looking forward to.
I also have a couple of solos coming up. One will be in New York, which is nice, in the Armory for 2020. I am doing all the fabrication and building for that solo. Another show that is about to open is my retrospective as it travels to San Jose, California. That will open on May 16th, so I am looking forward to the retrospective traveling now from Philadelphia to the San Francisco Area.