Sarnath Banerjee is an Indian artist, filmmaker and graphic novelist based in New Delhi and Berlin. His sharp, humorous illustrations explore the tensions of modern city life in narratives that manage to subtly yet potently tap into the collective unconscious.
Banerjee is one of six international artists invited by Frieze Projects East to create public art projects for the London 2012 Festival. Throughout the summer his illustration series Gallery of Losers (Non-Performers, Almost-Winners, Under-Achievers, Almost-Made-Its) can be seen on billboards, advertising hoardings and in local newspapers across the Olympic boroughs.
Banerjee also has his first UK solo show in Glasgow at the moment. History is Written by Garment Exporters presents an overview of his drawing, film and book works from 2008-11, including several key sequences from his most recent novel The Harappa Files.
So how does the artist feel, to be presenting major solo projects concurrently at either end of the UK? “I am absolutely thrilled,” he said. “Quite privileged really, my first institutional solo is in one of the most atmospheric cities in the world, with its great mysteries, grit and enlightenment rubbing shoulders equally with each other.”
And his London commission offers a welcome return – Banerjee studied for his MA in Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College: “To do Gallery of Losers as billboards all over East London, the area I once inhabited, gives me a lot of joy.”
Gallery of Losers takes a wry look at sporting (under) achievement and provides a counterpoint to many of the motivational advertising campaigns mounted in London at the moment. His characters – imaginary athletes who are “psychologically hard-wired to lose” – are charming, funny and, importantly, they are familiar. The idea of losing, of course, is universal.
“I have a boxer, who from start to end is solely concentrating on dodging punches. A pole-vaulter who, just in the middle of a jump, realises that perhaps he has chosen the wrong sport. A judoka who learned the sport through a mail order correspondence course, and a high jumper who only eats light food, has light thoughts and reads light literature, because high jump is all about levity.”
While the form of the graphic novel gives Banerjee a certain freedom to explore sensitive or controversial aspects of contemporary society, he is keen to avoid being labelled as a political artist: “I am often exposed to average material that is given a cosmetic coat of politics and is then toted as ‘political art’. These are rather stomach churning. A lot of my heroes are Moscow conceptualists; they were the masters of understatement and demonstrated to us the difference between being politically informed and politically astute.”
Gallery of Losers is on billboards across London until 26 August.
History is Written by Garment Exporters is at CCA Glasgow until 28 July.
Bannerjee will be in conversation with CCA’s Director Francis McKee this evening, following the screening of Percy Adion’s Bagdad Café at 7pm.