#other #violence #misogyny #racism #Orientalism #hybridity
An act of senseless violence at UC Santa Barbara this past week has reignited an online conversation about the interrelationship between race, gender, discrimination, and violence. While the tweets and subsequent articles around #yesallwomen have drawn public attention to the gendered assumptions that underpin violent behavior, less visibility has accrued to the role that Orientalism played in dehumanizing and de-sexualizing both the perpetrator and the victims of the attack that left seven young adults dead on May 23. My interest here is not to revisit the particulars of the crime or to give the killer any more attention. Instead, I will use the productive conversations that have emerged from this horrid tragedy to consider how we are “socialized to reject,” as artist Rina Banerjee puts it in the context of her current solo exhibition Disgust at LA Louver.
The effect of Banerjee’s installation of assemblage sculptures and small, surreal paintings is far from disgusting; rather, the works possess a strange and alien beauty. This dual attraction–revulsion is reflective of how both misogyny and Orientalism operate by simultaneously idealizing and dehumanizing the human object of acquisitive desire. Artists may experience a similar condition in the marketplace, which functions by idealizing their creative energies as “genius” while devaluing the labor they put into creating their work.
Banerjee makes her sculptures from a mix of organic and industrially fabricated materials, including molded polymers, shells, bones, ceramics, wire, and feathers. They often appear as uncanny, lifelike beings wielding lengthy poetic passages in place of titles. An elephantine figure draped in red taffeta and emblazoned with cowrie shells and ceramic eyes is titled She was now in western style dress covered in part of Empires’ ruffle and red dress, had a foreign and peculiar race, a Ganesha who had lost her head, was thrown across sea until herself shipwrecked. A native of Bangladesh lost foot to root in Videsh, followed her mother full stop on forehead, trapped tongue of horn and grew ram-like under stress (2011). This effigy reflects the conflicted, fragmented, and dehumanized nature of the transcultural condition experienced by Banerjee, whose dual Indian and Bengali identifications represent a split identity that does not easily reconcile to Western expectations of immigrants’ cultural authenticity. “Videsh,” or foreign trade, corrupts the deity “Ganesha,” strips her of her intellect, wrecks her capacity for self-expression, and ultimately transforms the playful elephant into a stubborn, aggressive ram.
In a video produced by the gallery, Banerjee articulates this experience of difference in the context of “disgust” as “a way of thinking about what is so clear in our emotional response that it forms a boundary.” Her works explore the emotional ramifications of our expectations of normalcy and difference, which in extreme cases can trigger acts of extremism and aggression in unstable individuals, as we saw this past week. While dramatic acts of aggression make headlines, far more common are a litany of daily microaggressions that represent a “death by a thousand cuts” inflicted upon the self-esteem of many who identify as culturally hybrid. Neither authentically “other” nor comfortably “us,” hybrid identity—often interracial, but also transcultural—disproves binary ideas of difference. The struggle between “self” and “other” becomes an internal one that is simultaneously writ large on the culture as a whole.
Banerjee describes her mixed-media painting Dressmaker and Shopping girl: Chinese goods and garment Industry tinsel, made in Hong Kong, made in India for export from port to port made by small hands and little hands, short people from far away lands. Dressmaker ghost follows me around from shop to shop in Big country with large people with Big hands and high heels (2014) as a depiction of “experiencing yourself to the point of vanity in that kind of greed that women are accused of.” In this work, beauty is itself a source of disgust. Socially conditioned toward superficial and acquisitive values, the ideal young woman must walk a fine line between adornment and self-aggrandizement in order to remain within propriety’s bounds. Her beauty must always be intended for the consumption of others. Any manifestation of her own desires—to be admired, desired, autonomous—is a transgression and a trigger for disgust, or even violence.
Banerjee is clear that disgust, while subconsciously triggered, is not an innate response but a socialized one. She is interested in how social cues “train us to be disgusted” by different bodies, different ideas, and different ways of being. In the case of the Santa Barbara murders, the perpetrator prefaced his rampage by articulating desire and disgust around his own mixed-race body as well as the bodies of those he identified as racially and/or sexually “other.” His aggression was framed as a bulwark against emasculation, bound up in racialization, rejection, and an expectation of white privilege by birthright that was only halfway his. Half-white and half-Asian, his internal conflict was a vicious distortion of the struggle that “hapa”-identified Americans often experience with respect to reconciling their own identification as both colonizer and colonized. Rina Banerjee’s work represents a better way forward in our negotiation of these common complexities, as she asks us to confront and negotiate our own capacity for disgust and for compassion.
Rina Banerjee: Disgust is on view at LA Louver through June 28, 2014.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.