Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya.
When you enter my apartment, over the shelf that carries my house keys, winter-resistant hand cream and meditation candle, hangs Broke Lakshmi, an original artwork made by Rajni Perera. Turn right and at the doorway of my studio space is Indira’s Goddess, an original Rajni Perera piece. Head into my bedroom and surrounded by clear Christmas lights is Spy, another Rajni piece. If it isn’t becoming clear already, I am a Rajni Perera ~fAn~.
This is no casual fanship either. This is not like how I am a fan of a couple tracks on the new so-and-so album that I probably won’t revisit in a year. I haven’t felt this quickened, this obsessed with an artist’s work, perhaps since I was a teenager. I was introduced to Rajni’s work in 2013 by Juliana Neufeld (another artist I adore), and since then I have been devotedly following Rajni’s work, swooning over every creative snapshot posted on her Instagram.
While I think the reason for my love is obvious in the extreme beauty and imagination bursting in all of her work, this fall I had the chance to see her stunning exhibit at Art League Houston, which put my love into perspective.
Important question: When was the last time you entered a gallery space and the main (or any) exhibit featured solely women of colour, created by a woman of colour?
My answer is sadly (but not surprisingly), not once, in 33 years—until this past November.
Walking around in that space, absorbing Rajni’s cosmic, bloody, alien creations, I was literally trembling. I thought: This is the world I want to live in. Where the black and brown female body isn’t in the background, the afterthought, and powerless. Where the black and brown female body is central, portrayed luminously, magnificently. Armed with a goddamn gold gun.
When I think back to my teenage obsessions, my bedrooms walls were predominantly covered in posters of white musicians and Hindu gods, whose faces were also, strangely, white. Rajni’s art is a gift, giving me what my teenage self was denied—black gods and brown rockstars.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, after over a decade, I have started to pray again.
When/how did you know you wanted to be a professional artist?
I’ve always drawn and painted. It was only during the last years of highschool and the first years of art school that I realized I was up to the challenge of pursuing such an unlucrative and sometimes thankless field, which is also wonderful and satisfying in it’s own way.
I have always thought of art school as a white institution. What was your experience as a brown woman going to OCAD?
Yeah it was interesting. I managed to find (or rather fell into by default) a typically Toronto-ish group of peers there (completely mixed) but the majority of the school and the predominant culture was indeed very Anglo-saxon.
I dealt with some racism but mostly it came from faculty whom I think sometimes didn’t even know they were operating under their own racist agendas. That they’d been doing it for years, completely unchecked. In a city like Toronto. Which is ridiculous.
Luckily now there’s Diversity & Equity Initiatives which is the ‘eye in the sky’ for shit like that at OCADU. I have faith in them.
Your work is incredibly imaginative. How/where do you start a new piece? How much of a vision do you have beforehand?
I don’t try to force things (although sometimes I have to), rather my best work comes from letting it naturally form in my mind. Often while I’m finishing another piece or completing a series it will inform a set of new ideas for me. I have some sketchbooks that I use but mostly I do straight shots on new pieces without much experimentation, using only a clear vision as to what I want to do. But that is changing for me and experimentation is leading to better results and more thoughtful work.
Your work features prehistoric (DINOSAURS!!) and futuristic elements. Is there a connection between the two for you?
Yes I think so, although it might be quite fluid and not so easily defined. In the worlds I dream up our time and history smash together and come apart simultaneously. That is, although dinosaurs existed in what is know as ‘prehistoric times’, or more specifically the Mesozoic era, in the universe of Afrika Galaktika they exist alongside the humanoid, neo-amazonian army of women in the world I made up.
As artists we are not limited to the way things are or have been in our world. Everything is up for re-assessment and rearrangement.
Also I have deep roots, inspirationally speaking, in the genres of science fiction and fantasy. The work of Moebius and H.R. Giger from magazines like Heavy Metal always lacked rules in terms of what elements of our times would come together to form unique visions. That is something I followed closely while growing up and forming my visual language. It’s sort of random and irreverent in looking at what we consider to be in the past or the future.
As a Sri Lankan artist, how do you navigate exploring indigenous, African and South Asian bodies. Do you ever worry about cultural appropriation?
I don’t really. Cultural appropriation is something that happens over time in any case, but it becomes problematic, in terms of visual culture, when corporations or people disrespectfully co-opt stylistic elements, motifs or pieces of other cultures in order to make money or take something on that otherwise has sinuous connections to them, with no foundation of respect, no research done, no real inspiration tying it to anything substantial.
With my work I know that is not the case because the work itself poses questions of respect, agency, power and body politics. Also I am an immigrant who navigates the space between cultures and I have always been involved with many other diasporic niches. So in terms of exploring the power of the colored female body in the white male world, I think I’m ok.
On the other hand, I think being politically correct all the time dulls the blade of the artist and, if you look at work like Curry Cream Pie, I’m not at all careful about the way I walk the tightrope of being PC verses intentional exploitation in order to say something very specific.
I grew up in a home where my parents associated nudity with indecency, especially female nudity. How do you parents feel about your work, especially the consistent female nudity?
I think my mother likes it, as do many older even semi-progressive immigrant women. They are both fairly conservative.
I think my work answers a call of some kind, giving power back to the female form, which is evident because for instance my father has completely stopped talking about my work. He is quick to tell people that I’m successful but not how or why.
This goes against the protocol of women-shaming and body-shaming that is ingrained in conservative Southeast-Asian male culture, because of the nature of my work. It shows power in femininity, re-thinks the male gaze. Sometimes people are not ready for that sort of thing.
What piece of yours are you proudest of?
That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. I guess there were turning points at “Chinnamasta”, “Heels”, “Tropical Galactical” and “Spy”. Also making the Maharanis series pushed me in a new direction, which is always nice.
What are your current inspirations?
Right now I’m getting back into the embellished photography thing. Also collaboration is holding a lot of appeal for me right now, finding parallels through time and place, uniting with kindred spirits; I’m trying to build a community around myself despite having no time for it (I have a 3 year old daughter). So collaborating locally and across the world somehow (usually via the internet) is an inspiring idea for me. Visually speaking I’m getting into minimal shapes, looking at how things can really be simplified without sacrificing accessibility and a strong idea. The work of artists like Parra and Wangechi Mutu in depicting bodies, Ukiyo-e block prints, things like that. I’ve also been looking at airbrushes so might be getting into that again just to introduce a new tool to the studio.
What advice would you give to aspiring POC artists?
Don’t watch the crowd. Do not watch the fine art crowd and what they’re doing. You have a vision which is more valuable than sacrificing it to be famous or whatever. It will make you feel better about yourself and your practice than say becoming yet another found-sculpture artist (enough seriously). If you go to art school; do not listen to professors whom you feel are bullying you into making a certain type of work. Make YOUR work. Tell them to fuck off. Use the work ethic and networking opportunities art school offers you but do not let people tell you what kind of work you should be making. Especially in the fine-arts world where everyone is pressured to make white-looking work which automatically looks more saleable to gallerists.
But POC artists do have to be more careful about things like self-exotification without anything in particular to say, without any substance. It’s an easy way in but watch that you’re not making work just to repackage and sell your culture to a western market. You’ll fall into a web of lies (lol). There’s lots to talk about outside of painting cute pictures of girls wearing bindis.
Your recent work has been predominantly part of the AFRIKA GALAKTIKA series. Is there a new series (or projects) in the works?
I just wrapped up a show in Houston after which I was invited to do something at Katzman Contemporary, which will open in late February. I’ll be collaborating with self-portrait artist Shirin Fathi, who is also a dear friend, to produce a photographic series informed by the aesthetics of Kabuki theatre and the performance of gender. I am also doing a group show in Berlin in January where I will show some small sculpture as well as paper work, and a show in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where I come from, in September 2015.
Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya.