A Global Conversation

Sarnath Banerjee's commission for Deutsche Bank

The work of Calcutta-born, Berlin- based Sarnath Banerjee sits between art and literature, constantly seeking a balance between image and text. His bold and often bittersweet comic- strip works explore the common experiences of a rapidly changing world. Banerjee’s latest suite of drawings, commissioned by Deutsche Bank for their offices in London, and which will be displayed in their Lounge at Frieze London, is a series of works that has been designed to be printed onto wallpaper for the large-scale walls in the office, rendered in a clean and distinct style. Embedded in these refined images are passages of writing; the images move between being illustrations of these texts and more speculative renderings of ideas. Banerjee offers not didactic assertions but chains of associations, sometimes signalled more explicitly (certain historical figures recur), sometimes more subtly. His themes are gardens, the changing wilderness, and, he says, ‘the loosely articulated preoccupations of my life – the restless wanderer, the uncanny, the uncertain.’

Banerjee has always demonstrated a penchant for criss-crossing time and space, moving with great ease across various geographies and historical epochs, but in this series he does not resurrect a character from his graphic novels to act as a quasi- guide to the meanderings as he has done before. Also, unlike his celebrated exploration of the underdog, Gallery of Losers (non-performers, almost- winners, under-achievers, almost-made- its, 2012), or his rumination on islands, Temporary Autonomous Zones (2012), this new body of work is not organized around a single premise, but draws on the renga, a form of ancient Japanese interconnected verse; this means it ‘flows in the manner of a conversation’, says Banerjee. Being given a ‘great and daunting’ open brief for the offices, Banerjee explains how he started by talking to the people who daily occupy the floors where the commission will be shown. ‘It was a great privilege,’ he says, ‘to work with people who belong to a world entirely different from mine. At this stage I prefer working with other people to interrogating the self.’ The series is intended to buzz with conversation, ‘not unlike a teahouse in Samarkand.’

A sense of continuous travel – of itinerancy itself – emerges as a motif throughout. A sign of Banerjee’s affirming engagement, both practical and philosophical, with the modest and the everyday. The simple act of walking leads to a broader canvas: ambling in the English countryside, commuting in Tokyo, speeding in São Paulo, traversing Rome, and dashing through Addis Ababa. Each scenario is conjured with a lightness of touch, which still calls up esoteric thoughts and deeper feelings. Wandering through these drawings, inhabiting their conversations, provides Banerjee with a situation, a setting, a course – a way of living, from encounter to encounter, for life itself.

Shanay Jhaveri is assistant curator of South Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Issue 3

First published in Issue 3

October 2016

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