Exhibitionists

Rajni Perera's stunning sci-fi neo-Amazonians — in pictures

Afrika Galaktika, Crafts series explore fantastical worlds full of people of colour

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In 2011, I accompanied my best friend to a small art gallery to make her first "serious" investment in a piece of art. For hours after, she gushed about how transformative it had been to see this work that centered brown female bodies and how inspired she had been to dig into her savings — and overdraft — so that she could take home one of these cosmic, magnificently imagined and (arguably) controversial images. The creator of that art: Sri Lankan born and Toronto based visual artist Rajni Perera.

"I have investigated many avenues but here in North America I get the most attention for the ones where I talk about being a brown woman." - Rajni Perera, artist

​Perera's work calls upon a number of visual references including, sci-fi, manga, Rajput and Mughal miniaturisim, Blaxploitation, Afrofuturism, paleontology, futurism, magical realism, scientific illustration and Tantric art. I find myself drawn to her aesthetic, this type of layered visual landscape that speaks across a galaxy of inspirations, illustrating the complexity and nuance of Diasporic identities. Much of Perera's work invites viewers into a world where history, mythology and the contemporary collide. Over the years, it has led me down a number of internet rabbit holes, from learning about the Hindu goddess Kali to looking up images from the Hubble Deep Field Telescope.

Perera's art has been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Germany and Sri Lanka. This month she exhibits several new pieces including a mural at the 37th Rhubarb theatre festival at Buddies In Bad Times theatre in Toronto. I spoke with Perera by e-mail about her work.

Tell me about what you are exhibiting at Rhubarb.

For the Rhubarb Festival I was invited by the lovely Mel Hague to exhibit in their Ante Chamber, so I responded with a mural on their garage door and five new pieces called Crafts which I did together with a good friend, Richard Thomas. He's very talented, clearly from the future and has the uncanny gift of drawing freeform perspective that is nearly perfect. His handle is sometimes Mr Tomorrow, and we are excited to continue working together whenever we can. The pieces we did are an extension of my series Afrika Galaktika, which is about a black superheroine who fights in space with an army of neo-Amazonians. They are decked out in lots of chrome space gear and clothes they make from the minerals they mine on their homeworld, where they live closely with prehistoric animals. Yes, that is how nerdy I am.

What inspired your fascination with the female form?

For me personally, the female form symbolizes more power, dynamism and ability than the male form. We can create life and nourish it from our own bodies, we have a higher pain tolerance, we are able to do more with less and our mental capacities are proving to be superior to those of men in many ways. This is, of course, just coming to light after centuries of being oppressed as a sex. There might be much more. So I'm naturally attracted to the inherent power of the female form.

Rajni Perera

Rajni Perera (Courtesy of the artist)

Do you consider your work subversive?

In some series, yes I do. For example Afrika Galaktika, for me, simply fills a gender and race diversity gap in the tropes of Sci Fi and fantasy visual culture, where I try to do my part to correct an imbalance of representation. Others, like The New Ethnography, subvert traditional imagery and image-making techniques to say something new; to talk about the interchange of visual culture between North America and the East, how that changes, and how it treats the image of the coloured female body.

Have you ever felt pressured to compromise or negotiate your artistic vision in order to conform to mainstream/typical high art priorities or tastes?

Sure I have. But a big reason I don't have representation in the upper echelons of Toronto's fine art world is that I don't give in to it or appease it. It's the same reason I'm doing well overseas. If I gave in to trends of painting grid patterns with gradients and squiggles from the '90s, nothing would change. I wouldn't be able to change things, or say anything with my work. The other thing I try to avoid is pandering to the intelligentsia and making my work inaccessible on purpose, in galleries where 9 out of 10 people only pretend to understand, and the remaining 10 per cent  have seven years of highly niche education under their belts. Art needs to return to everyone and I think that's where it serves its most useful purpose. That's where it has its optimal effect.

What are your thoughts on the current art scene in Toronto? What excites you? What do you think needs to change?

The Toronto art scene will start to look and act like Toronto as soon as it stops trying to look like New York, Berlin and London. It is under-diversified and insecure. But I feel like we have a great future ahead of us, which starts to show here and there. I'm much more interested in galleries like Huntclub, Project Gallery, Only One Gallery, Rally, X-pace, alternative spaces; risk-takers who keep an eye out for something new and keep an open mind. The commercial galleries actually mostly just bore me.

A good friend of mine Teresa Aversa recently said "It's so easy to go somewhere else. But we should stay here and build Toronto." I think she's right.

Some of your work deals with the idea of neo-exoticism but do you ever felt tokenized or unfairly labeled as the "exotic other" by the art world?

Yes, and I think this is a typical occurrence in the value-making process of the North American art market. And I don't think it's unfair labelling, insofar as it is part and parcel of a colonizing extension of an industry based around colonial ideologies, which in themselves toss any notion of fairness to the wayside. My first series out of school, which was a little naive and extremely Southeast Asian, still gets the most press out of all of my many bodies of work. I'm fairly prolific and have investigated many avenues but here in North America the ones I get the most attention for are the ones where I talk about being a brown woman. Elsewhere I am recognized for my technical ability, use of symbolism, my particular brand of subversion, etc. I'm just careful to get it across that I understand why particular demographics like particular pieces or bodies of work.

 "If I gave in to trends of painting grid patterns with gradients and squiggles from the '90s, nothing would change." - Rajni Perera, artist

Your work was recently exhibited in Colombo, Sri Lanka. What was that experience like?

Saskia Fernando Gallery represents me in Sri Lanka and I couldn't be happier about it. My first solo show there almost sold out. The clientele simply matches what I make and the reasons why I make it, and it has gone so incredibly well in terms of an artist-gallery relationship that they are taking my work to Art Dubai next month. The opening night was busy and buyers were there, and so was my family. It was more successful than I've ever felt at an opening, and not just because of sales. They operate professionally without any pretension and Saskia is an honest and smart gallerist with a good team around her.

You've done a number of collaborations with artists across various spectrums from fashion to music. Can you tell me about some of your favourites experiences of collaboration?

I love to cross disciplines and wish I could more often. Notable ones are my collaboration with Norblack Norwhite, a fabulous Toronto/Delhi clothing brand and design duo to create a line of printed clothes called Mangoverse. I worked with the amazing rap/neo-soul duo THEESatisfaction in Seattle to make an album cover as well as Nep Sidhu here in Toronto to make a graphic for Shabazz Palaces. And of course my most recent one for Rhubarb which went so well we're going to keep making more work together.

I want to collaborate all the time. It becomes difficult as my career progresses while being recognized primarily as a painter, and my schedule fills up with painting-related priorities but I'm ready for sculpture, installation, performance, intervention/interruption... anything, really. Everything, if possible.

Rajni Perera and Mr Tomorrow. Crafts. On display at The 37th Rhubarb Festival. To Feb. 29. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St., Toronto. 416-975-8555. Wed-Sat, 7-8pm and 9:30-11pm.

Watch Exhibitionists Sunday at 4:30pm (5pm NT) on CBC Television.

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