art world

A book designer talks about digital collages and what it takes to interpret words

Seagull Books’ Sunandini Banerjee, who is exhibiting her digital collages in Delhi this month, talks to writer Sandip Roy about books and art.

Sandip Roy: This phrase ‘digital collage’ for your artwork – is it something you had to coin after the fact?
Sunandini Banerjee: Yes, it was. The collage itself was a sort of fortunate accident on the computer. I didn’t really set out to do a collage. There was a new feature in the software which I work with to create books and covers. An upgraded version of the software allowed one to render black-and-white photographs transparent. I know it can be done in Photoshop but I don’t use Photoshop very extensively. So, one year, working on the new catalogue, I brought in a photograph onto the page. There was another image behind it which I had forgotten about. Purely by accident I clicked on something and all the white in the black-and-white photograph disappeared, leaving only the black. And that was one of those goosebump-y moments you have in life... suddenly for me there was the possibility of working with layers – something on top of something on top of something else. And all those somethings change when you see them through a fourth something.

So that’s how the first collage happened.
Then, at some point, we sat down and thought: So, now, what is this? OK, it’s a collage. But a collage means pen and paper and scissors and glue. I do use scissors and erasers, I do cut and paste, but it all happens on the computer. It’s all digital. So, this is a digital collage. It was indeed a retrospective label we came up with, completely unaware of what was happening when it was happening.

Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee
Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee

But you have said it does come out of a lifetime of mental scrapbooking?
It does indeed. I must have been five or six when my mother bought me a real scrapbook. It was an A4-sized book, with multicoloured pages. I asked her what I was supposed to do with it. She said it was a scrapbook and I could cut out pictures that I liked and stick them in. So, easily and unselfconsciously, the the habit of looking at pictures, of hoarding the ones that I like, the mental scrapbooking brought about by the physical... In those days, the house was flooded with greeting cards – Christmas cards, New Year cards. The idea that anything you liked could be cut out and ‘saved’, that you began to look at pictures in a certain way...

That scrapbooking extended itself to ‘choosing’ images, considering images and then deciding whether one ‘kept’ them or not. Also to regarding arrangements of images, colours, textures. The visual options were far more limited at that time. So I was looking at tins and boxes, at saris, their patterns, their prints, their colour combinations. I would be very excited when the house was painted because we would get the little pamphlet full of paint options, all those shades. I would love looking at boxes of crayons, felt pens, all the shades going from one end to the other, and of course I loved cutting things out of cards and calendars, newspapers and magazines.

I was very fond of drawing though I couldn’t really draw. I suppose I was good at looking at something and trying to ‘copy’ it rather than drawing something on my own. But that desire to interact with the image at some level was quite keenly present. And I think that’s what the computer unlocked for me – I could finally work with images, put images alongside text, images alongside one another, make my own images. That’s the sort of journey from the physical to the mental scrapbooking and eventually to the key that unlocked the door. And I think that also explains why my collages are what they are – a hodgepodge of influences, images, shades and objects. They are all like that in my head. Shelf after shelf full of pictures I think are beautiful and odd and unusual and colourful.

Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee
Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee

An artist’s work is about the artist but your covers and illustrations are from someone else’s text. That must be tricky.
It’s an almost schizophrenic life. It applies to my covers and my collages and to my editing.

When you are elbow deep in somebody else’s language, feeling your way about their text... it’s like a brief marriage, no? You live together for a while, you get used to each other’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities... You are in somebody else’s language yet the choices you make when you intervene are guided by your language, grammar, ear for rhythm, sense of style, your desire for pauses.

And when I design a cover, again, it’s my way of telling but telling someone else’s story. How can I tell this particular story in a way that the story continues to fascinate but not because I’m the one telling it?

I think there is a slight difference between the cover designs and collages for the catalogue and, say, when I am illustrating a book like Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit. I am telling a story through my ‘illustrations’ too, but they are not literal illustrations. They approach the text askance... a word here, a phrase there, an unspoken thought somewhere else... these are what I draw out, what I ‘draw’ upon the page. Somewhere the word red appears on the page, and I’ll give you a collage of red objects alongside.

Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee
Image credit: Sunandini Banerjee

When I am illustrating something, I come on as a sort of collaborator or conversationalist. Like the works I’ve done for Ivan Vladislavić’s Loss Library or Yves Bonnefoy’s Ursa Major. I try and come up with things that talk to the text or laugh with the text or comment on the text rather than the text saying: There was a red house and I give you a red house. The text becomes my springboard. I read it and then I gather up all my energies, all my years of scrapbooking and create a partner to it.

Although, again, the constant looking over the shoulder is there. Anything of myself – my reading, my memories, my associations – I put in, I try and ensure that they are of the kind that may have some universal resonance. I don’t want to pick out an obscure memory of a bumble bee from when I was five. That’ll be great for me but no one else will know what’s going on. The illustrations are definitely more interpretive, they have a looser relation to the text. They talk to the text, they talk with the text, they walk hand in hand.

The cover is much more particular and I would not bring in any of myself in that way.

But yes, to end a long-winded answer: It’s tricky, it’s hell, to be given the responsibility of someone else’s words. To constantly tread that thin line between saying it your own way but not entirely making it your own.

Would there be your art without the books, without the texts?
I read to make sense of the world, to refract the world through layers and layers of reading experience as much as through lived experience. And the images that I express, the often fantastic-abstract-multilayered, even upside-down images I create or assemble, I think they also dwell in language. Language is the home of both myself and my pictures. The pictures come from the words. As of now, I don’t see them being separated.

I think I am grateful for the multiplicity of voices that I have had to interpret and work with, for that has led to the creation of a variety of images that would never have occurred to me if I was only interpreting the thoughts in my own head. If you look at a catalogue and add up all the voices in it, that’s a whole kaleidoscope of personalities that I donned and got to playact for a page or two, if not more. The pictures that I make, therefore, are not restricted to the little life that I’ve led. They are almost like shrapnel, fragments of the explosion of voices I am reading, hearing every day.

People often ask me: But where is your own work? And I say: This is all my own work as much as it is other people’s. I have no repressed-depressed-artistic tendencies in me that are howling outside my mind’s door, waiting to be let in because my day job is slapping the creativity out of me. This is it. This is the art, this is my art.

I’d feel a little lost without the words, frankly. Maybe one day I’ll wake up in the morning and do a picture without a book, without a text. But for now I am happy in the shelter of the words.

Extracted from the exhibition catalogue for The Wounded Sky, Digital Collages by Sunandini Banerjee. The exhibition is on display at the Visual Arts Gallery of the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, from December 15 to December 20.

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