Ra­jni Perera’s ART­WORKS are de­ter­mined to TURN CON­VEN­TION on its head.


Artist Ra­jni Perera is de­ter­mined to turn con­ven­tion on its head

Ra­jni Perera

is so busy that she al­most for­gets our in­ter­view. The mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary artist is build­ing a 10-foot robot out of Ikea dry­ing racks, mov­ing her stu­dio, and cre­at­ing an in­ter­ac­tive sen­sor-mapped shrine for an up­com­ing show.

Part rad­i­cal fem­i­nist, part sci-fi nerd, the 32-year-old artist is mak­ing waves with her daz­zling takes on power struc­tures, gen­der roles, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion of peo­ple of colour. And while her sub­ject mat­ter echoes much of what has ex­hausted head­lines of late, she tack­les it with ex­u­ber­ance.

Em­bel­lished pho­tog­ra­phy is just one de­funct art form Perera has brought back to flip con­ven­tion on its head. In her Ma­hara­jas and Ma­ha­ra­nis se­ries, she ex­alts mod­ern-day sub­jects through or­nate, psy­che­delic pat­terns and myth­i­cal at­tire. In one, a would-be In­dian king swims in a glim­mer­ing un­der­wa­ter cur­rent. In an­other, Perera re­gally clenches a ser­pent while wear­ing a heav­ily se­quined cape. “It’s so im­por­tant to see your­self re­flected in the work you love,” she says.

Though Perera’s work cen­tres on trans­plant­ing peo­ple of colour into royal por­trai­ture, she of­ten por­trays the throne as un­de­sir­able in it­self. In her painted se­ries, We Come Alive From Eat­ing Your Flesh, sub­jects are dressed in gilded royal garb, yet they sit in a pool of blood meant to mimic the af­ter­math of colo­nial­ism and “bit­ing off the hand that feeds.” One sub­ject is partly trans­formed into a mon­key, eerily hint­ing at his own pun­ish­ment for tak­ing part. “My work ques­tions the throne as a vi­o­lent yet beau­ti­ful sym­bol of ar­chaic power,” she says.

Hav­ing moved to the out­skirts of Toronto from Sri Lanka at age nine, Perera has al­ways been aware of her di­as­poric routes. “I lived in lower-in­come ar­eas so I was al­ways aware and thought crit­i­cally about racism and clas­sism,” she says. She was also con­scious of her fu­ture life as an artist, hav­ing been told by an astrologer that she was a Ja­panese artist in her past life. “When I was one and my doo­dles were look­ing es­pe­cially nice, my mom bought me crayons and mark­ers and re­ally set the fire.”

While study­ing draw­ing and paint­ing at the On­tario Col­lege of Art and De­sign, Perera be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with the cur­ricu­lum’s fo­cus on Euro­cen­tric arts. “Af­ter work­ing through all of the clichés of mak­ing art in art school, you have to think about see­ing your­self in what you’re be­ing taught and con­se­quently what you’re mak­ing,” she says. As a re­sult, Perera turned to In­dian minia­ture (a 10th-cen­tury art form used to dec­o­rate manuscripts) and Ja­panese wood­block print­ing and be­gan ap­ply­ing them to her work.

In her se­ries Afrika Galak­tika, black women play the roles of su­per­heroes, off to ex­plore a gal­axy far, far away. In one paint­ing, three war­riors glee­fully hold up a ban­ner that reads, “No pigs in space.” In an­other, a woman breast­feeds while hold­ing a gun. Nude, pow­er­ful and in con­trol, Perera’s hero- ines si­mul­ta­ne­ously reimag­ine Blax­ploita­tion and Afro­fu­tur­ism, a move­ment that cri­tiques the ex­pe­ri­ences and fu­ture of Afro­di­as­poric peo­ples. “It came out of a need to see women of colour in sci­ence fic­tion—we’re quite glam­orous, we’re beau­ti­ful, and we’re in­tel­li­gent. We should be there!” she says. “Grow­ing up, my friends were al­ways black and brown and we were all watch­ing sci­ence fic­tion, a white man’s world. Cre­at­ing worlds where my ques­tions are an­swered I think re­solves th­ese is­sues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion for me.”

Afrika Galak­tika also speaks to Perera’s fas­ci­na­tion with the sci-fi world, which started when she was ex­posed to anime and manga on Ja­panese tele­vi­sion as a child. “I think it’s the mas­tery of colour, form, com­po­si­tion, and cin­e­matog­ra­phy that hits me the hard­est and it’s def­i­nitely some­thing I as­pire to match, that metic­u­lous ex­e­cu­tion.”

But about that 10-foot robot…. This fall, Perera will take part in “Fu­tur­ing the Mar­gins,” a group show at the Art Gallery of York Univer­sity ex­plor­ing the di­as­poric ex­pe­ri­ence in Toronto’s suburbs. For the show, Perera is chan­nel­ing her child­hood love of sci-fi through said robot, a replica of the Hover Tank from the Robotech: The Mas­ters se­ries, amongst other things. “I’m al­ways push­ing my­self for­ward be­cause I want art to reach more peo­ple,” she says. “It doesn’t be­long in gal­leries and ivory tow­ers away from the av­er­age per­son. It’s not go­ing to change the world that way.”

ZAHRA, 2016.


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