Art

Art as a tool for revelation

Subhankar Banerjee's exhibit highlights the startling connections between the Arctic and New Mexico

By Rick Romancito
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 1/8/20

It takes a large photograph to bring the issues talked about by artist, scholar and activist Subhankar Banerjee to light. Banerjee's images, which dominate the Harwood Museum's Mandelman-Ribak Gallery, are on view now through April 26.

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Art

Art as a tool for revelation

Subhankar Banerjee's exhibit highlights the startling connections between the Arctic and New Mexico

Posted

It takes a large photograph to bring the issues talked about by artist, scholar and activist Subhankar Banerjee to light. Banerjee's images, which dominate the Harwood Museum's Mandelman-Ribak Gallery, are on view now through April 26. What they show are landscapes, mostly shot from small aircraft providing what he calls a "God's-eye perspective," that may at first render the earth as abstract images but which become more provocative once you learn what it is you're seeing and why.

The exhibition, titled "Long Environmentalism," combines for the first time two bodies of photographic works by Banerjee, a museum statement reads. "One series, created in the early 2000s, depicts ecological nurseries and indigenous relations with land and animals in Alaska's Arctic. The second series, created more recently, portrays dying piñon in the New Mexico desert. Through his camera's lens, Banerjee explores how the Arctic and New Mexico are interconnected."

Banerjee comments in the statement, "While the two bodies of work look aesthetically different -- together, the modest selection drawn from the two series -- aims to highlight how Arctic Alaska and New Mexico are related in many significant ways -- physical, biological, cultural and economic."

In a presentation at the exhibit's opening, Banerjee explained that, New Mexico and the Arctic "are connected in more ways that we can imagine: ecologically, culturally, politically, economically and otherwise."

Manifest Destiny was a term coined in 1845 that said expansion of the United States throughout the American continent was not only justified but inevitable. It was partly responsible for the creation of vast settlements, seizure of lands, creation of civic and political systems, the destruction of indigenous lifeways and even climate change.

While that belief may be considered antiquated in our so-called enlightened era, it is solidly enmeshed in the ways government and corporate interests have looked at the vast seemingly empty reaches of the Arctic. To the corporate mindset, the emptiness simply means that its valuable resources beneath the surface are ripe for the taking.

"The reason I do my work is also about justice," Banerjee said at the exhibit opening, "so right when all of this biological and climate crisis is taking place in the Arctic, our country is also pushing for opening up all of the Arctic land and seas to oil and gas development."

Banerjee has said in press materials both New Mexico and the Arctic are considered "desert" because of "low annual precipitation; both are warming at a higher pace than the global average pace due to climate change; both boast rich biological diversity and sustain the migrating snow geese, which are born in the Arctic and winter in the Southwest; both are home to many indigenous nations who have complex, long-lasting relationships to the wild animals and plants of their regions; and both places have been exploited by extractive economies causing environmental injustice against Indigenous and other marginalized communities."

While Banerjee's art activism highlights the need to preserve these spaces for the health of the planet and all its creatures, human beings are still locked into a consumer economy that relies on extraction of the very resources he says we need to protect.

"It's not an easy answer," he told Tempo. "There are economic and political issues and indigenous rights issues within Alaska and then there is the national priority. So, from the national priority point of view, the U.S. since 2012 has become the largest oil and gas producing nation in the world. We have exceeded Russia and Saudi Arabia. So, the oil that would come out from there has nothing to do with U.S. consumption. That oil is a global commodity. It is traded on the global market. So, a lot of it may be going to China for all we know … but, at what cost? That's the debate that is happening in Alaska … Should we be embroiled in an oil and gas economy forever or should we be looking at other options?"

Banerjee is the Lannan chair and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Born in India, Banerjee emigrated to New Mexico three decades ago to study physics and computer science, his bio reads. Banerjee gave up his career in science and became a self-taught artist, writer and scholar, and an accidental activist. His interdisciplinary creative practice and research is situated at the intersection of art, ecology and environmental humanities, and focuses on environmental justice and conservation of biological diversity. He has engaged with three geographies so far: Arctic North America and Siberia, desert of northern New Mexico and the coastal temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

The Harwood Museum of Art is located at 238 Ledoux Street. For more information about this show and the museum, call (575) 758-9826 or visit harwoodmuseum.org.

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