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Vasco da Gama in New York

Berlin-based graphic novelist, Sarnath Banerjee, created a buzz at the big-ticket Frieze Art Fair in New York. In an email interview, he tells Fiona Fernandez about his work and the intriguing feedback for his artwork

Q. At the Frieze Art Fair, what was the response to Liquid History of Vasco da Gama?
A. I stay away from the art world as much as possible, although I hypocritically reap its many benefits (friends/money). My gallerist, Sree Goswami and colleagues at Project 88, Zakia and Kamna, take most of the decisions, such as where to show and how to show. I just do the easy job of making the work. I am scared of art fairs; it’s like being a cow standing next to the butchers (Oops! make that a goat, considering it’s Mumbai). Many art fairs strictly follow the Hindu caste system, green card, blue card or pale lilac card.

A display from the Liquid History of Vasco da Gama showcased at the Frieze Art Fair in New York
A display from the Liquid History of Vasco da Gama showcased at the Frieze Art Fair in New York

Each card sets its own class boundaries. Being a participant, one gets a VVIP card. This is the Rabbi/Dastoor class. This is the card given to the prime collectors. So, on the VVIP day, they can roam around without being jostled by common mankind. This is the time I enjoy the most. I pretend to be a collector and ramble through booths, taking to extraordinarily articulate and glamorous gallery managers, pretending to be an eccentric millionaire (because of my shabby appearance) who makes money but hates it. But has the right eye to pick the best.

A display from the Night of the Hunter series that was displayed at the Frieze Art Fair
A display from the Night of the Hunter series that was displayed at the Frieze Art Fair

Once that is over, I hide. I wait for news from the frontier, as sailors wait for the shipping forecast. So, according to dependable accounts, newspapers, trade press, and junta who went there, ‘Vasco’ was very well-received, as was ‘The night of the hunter’. Most commented on how the booth was set up (listed among the ten best booth in a sea of top galleries) — it was quiet, minimal and very elegant. Like a Gompa, one told me. I am afraid to say those were not my decisions but Project 88’s.

Sarnath Banerjee Graphic novelist
Sarnath Banerjee Graphic novelist

Q. Why did you decide to showcase this particular collection at a global art fair?
A. Sree decided. But I suspect it might be because the work is about Euro-centricity, both
past and present. Also, maybe, she likes when historical celebrities meet, such as Vasco meeting Ibn Majid.

Q. Being a resident of Berlin, what are some of the elements of expatriate life that you also translated at the art fair?
A. I have tried to look at the city of Berlin from the perceptive of the eerie or the uncanny. Night falls, strange things happen at the outer edges of the cities, Berlin, Delhi or Karachi. The drawings are also about nostalgia for things that never happened.

Q. Were there any interesting reflections that emerged during the showcasing of your work?
A. According to the New York Times, I am quiet. And according to Art-Info, I am one of the greatest practitioners of the
form of graphic novels. I think both are wrong. As my friends and the graphic novel industry will vouch for.

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