“Take Me, Take Me, Take Me …to the Palace of Love” — on display at the Syracuse University Museum of Art — offers an extensive look at Rina Banerjee’s artworks.
During her career, she’s delved into migration, climate changes, sense of place and culture in various forms.
In exploring those subjects, she’s taken a non-linear approach, one based on personal experience and a deep interest in community, on gathering objects from around the globe for her installations, on her willingness to reconsider identity, our need for home and the very idea of love.
And so, the current exhibition is large, challenging, and visually intriguing. It features three installations that have appeared at previous venues but are now on site at the SU Museum.
In addition, the show displays pieces by other artists that help develop relevant themes. They include “Black Sea,” Louisa Chase’s color woodcut depicting people lost in menacing waters, and “View from West Point,” a William Louis Sonntag Jr. painting portraying a sun-kissed day on the Hudson River.
Elsewhere, the exhibit presents artworks associated with India, the country where Banerjee was born. She lived briefly in England and at age 7 moved with her family to Queens.
A metal sculpture places two principal figures from the Hindu religion on a brass elephant. They are Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune and fertility, and her consort, Narayan, one of the names and forms of Lord Vishnu.
Moreover, Banerjee has created an installation evoking the Taj Mahal, a massive, ivory-white marble mausoleum, in Agra, India. That structure was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Her installation presents the Taj Mahal in pink plastic wrap shaped like a tent. Within it, various objects are positioned on an antique dark wood chair: foam balls and cowrie shells, fake birds and red-colored moss. An antique stone globe is also on site.
The original Taj Mahal was indeed intended to be a palace of love. It was built between 1631 and 1648 by a workforce of 20,000 people; the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan ordered the building constructed in tribute to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.
Banerjee’s installation, “A World Lost…,” which references climate change, is even more ambitious.
At its very top wire netting, almost like a basket, hangs from the ceiling. It holds small and large black, synthetic horns, red thread, and many light bulbs and plastic objects. Right below the netting there’s a set of metal scales, each holding an ostrich egg.
On the floor the artist has built a scene that seems to be land on an island or on mainland territory close to an ocean. It’s made up of dozens of cowrie shells, pebbles and small rocks, coins and coral. Bright paint, miniature human and animal figurines, and a tiny bell help communicate an illusion of a separate city or small nation.
A third installation, “Viola from New Orleans…,” discusses migration, racism, and yes, love. In 1906 in New Orleans, Viola Ida Lewis, an African American citizen, married Joseph Abdin, a Bengali sailor and peddler. They later ran an export business.
Their marriage came 12 years after Louisiana prohibited marriages between Black and white people, and 14 years before the state Legislature outlawed marriages between indigenous and Black people. Racial codes and classifications were enforced by state power and mob violence.
Banerjee touches on that marriage from several perspectives. First, she alludes to the temper of the times by inclusion of Elizabeth Catlett’s powerful lithograph, “To Marry,” It depicts two scenes: the joy of a marriage ceremony for a black couple; the horror of a lynching.
Second, she celebrates Lewis’s life with an audacious installation incorporating an array of objects: Kashmir shawls from India and Murano glass tusks, sequins and Indian rakes, Korean silks and a French metal Ferris wheel. Light beams from a small lantern.
A figure wearing an African Yoruba mask both struggles forward and moves in and out of time and space. Long tusks extend from the mask all the way to the floor.
Third, the show includes artworks touching on the marriage of Lewis and Abdin as a fusing of cultures. The metal sculpture depicting Lakshmi and Narayan hangs on a wall between works from West Africa: a helmet mask associated with the Mende people of Sierra Leone and a second mask made by an artisan from either Mali and Burkina Faso.
Finally, the exhibition presents a small selection of Banerjee’s fantasy-based drawings and eight Mathila paintings by artists from northeast India. Those paintings are thematic, colorful and structured by geometric forms.
The overall show is both tangible and incisive. It provides ample space for a full display of Banerjee’s artworks, which document her imagination and her quest for a distinctive visual idiom. It pays full attention to the current climate crisis and to the many thousands of people leaving homelands to live abroad.
Most of all, it invites viewers to ask questions about their own lives, about connections between people living in the same community and around the world, about the coming decades on this planet.
The exhibit, whose curator is Romita Ray, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories at SU, runs through May 14 in the Shaffer Art Building on the SU quadrangle.
The venue is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The show is free and open to the public.
Rina Banerjee will be at the Syracuse University campus for a residency entitled “Diaspora, Displacement and the Science of Love.” Consisting of lectures, interviews and other events, it runs from Feb. 23 through March 3.
For more information, visit museum.syr.edu or call 315-443-4097.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 through 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in the Syracuse area.