Is cartooning art? That question and the status of comic illustration in the realm of fine art and gallery exhibitions is put partly to rest by Sarnath Banerjee’s latest show at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, an organization open to cutting-edge works from contemporary visual, performance, film and music artists.
Mr. Banerjee’s “History is Written by Garment Exporters” exhibition at the CCA propels comic art, which is usually confined to newspapers and books, on to a bigger stage. Using classic illustrative techniques, collage and even film, the exhibition delves partly into the notion that the rise of India’s global economic status stems from garment exports. Using a style similar to 18th century English comic illustration, Mr. Banerjee also makes observations on daily Indian life.
One of the country’s most well-known graphic novel artists, Mr. Banerjee is the co-founder of publishing house Phantomville. His three published books, “Corridor” (2004), “The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers” (2007) and “The Harappa Files” (2011) have toyed with various Indian themes, from Kolkata in the 18th century to the effects of economic development and urbanization today.
The exhibition in Glasgow marks a continuation of Banerjee’s penchant for wry commentary on the psyche of everyday people and life in India.
“Sarnath’s work digs into the changes happening in India at the moment, the rise of India as an economic superpower and the rapid changes in the larger cities,” says Francis McKee, director of the CCA. “He explores the transformation of the country, looking at the losses in terms of intimacy and tradition; the rise in conspicuous wealth and consumption, and the evolution of strange new ways of life.”
From all too familiar themes in India such as censorship and bureaucracy, Mr. Banerjee explores universal topics such as loss, Sunday afternoons and even murder. While these ideas are played out by Indian characters in familiar tableaus, the artworks carry a wider appeal.
“His works translate very easily across international boundaries and while there may be some specific references to India, the much broader points are universal,” says Mr. McKee. “The art community has responded positively to the conceptual basis of the work as well as the beautiful use of color and line.”
By using film and collage in his exhibition at the CCA, the Goldsmiths College graduate and erstwhile ad man is looking to evolve some of the prescriptive notions surrounding the terms “comic art” and “graphic novel.” These terms are often associated solely with characters such as Batman and Dilbert and how a story on their predicaments might play out via successive panels of hand-drawn pictures and words. Exhibitions such as Mr. Banerjee’s extend graphic novel art to wider social commentary, similar to what traditional art does.
“I have started looking at the form of the narrative more closely, bringing in changes in the way an event can be narrated,” he told India Real Time.
Mr. Banerjee’s work has even caught the attention of the London 2012 Olympics. Commissioned by the Frieze Foundation for the Games, the artist has developed a 48-poster campaign for online and in print called “A Cottage Emporium of Losers” that celebrates fictional characters who might fail at the Olympics, such as a hurdler trying to overcome obstacles that seem to be higher than everyone else’s.
Victory for these characters remains elusive, as does Mr. Banerjee when it comes to describing his style. “The only thing that defines my work is that I like using words and pictures.”