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Rajni Perera’s art brings the shifting immigrant culture to light

Born in Sri Lanka and based in Toronto, artist Rajni Perera brings the two disparate universes together in her body of work that illustrates her cultural roots.

By Ritupriya Basu on 08 May

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Jess from Surreal Body by Rajni Perera

Imbued with compelling symbolism, artist Rajni Perera’s work stands at the intersection of Western and Eastern aesthetics while navigating the world of diaspora art. Her oeuvre is a trans-Atlantic dialogue of ideas that explores race, identity politics, immigrant culture and female sexuality. Moving from Sri Lanka to Toronto at the age of nine marked a tectonic shift in her life, and also charted a new direction for her craft. Surrounded by popular culture that was so devoid of coloured narratives, Rajni started painting in an attempt to reimagine the Asian female body and give it its own place.

Soon, her work delved into the notions of Eastern imagery, royalty and power structures. In We Come Alive From Eating Your Flesh, she imagines her subjects in gilded clothes sitting on pristine thrones, yet surrounded in a pool of blood, hinting at the aftermath of colonialism. She paints the throne itself in an undesirable light. In Surreal Body, she questions the ideas of identity and belonging, by transforming her subjects into animals and monsters with wings and claws.

We connect with Rajni across continents and together, we peel apart her multi-layered practise in an attempt to understand her fantastical, densely colourful artworks and the ideas that drive them.

The Maharani and Maharaja series comments on the kitschy side of Western media's interpretation of the East

Growing up, what were the early artistic influences in your life?

I grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the city. I have always been in cities, so I make my work for dynamic demographics. I grew up watching lots of Anime, and animated movies which inform the cinematic compositions/colour values I use in my work. My mother and father both drew and painted a little, and nurtured my creativity. I constantly push myself today because I watched how hard my parents worked.

Your art revolves around identity, sexuality and the repositioning of the coloured female body in popular culture. When and how did you start gravitating towards these ideas?

I started to look into my personal politics and what aspects of it I wanted to bring into my practice around my third year of art school. I went to a very white, Western art school and had to find my own curriculum by myself. I’m an immigrant and there are entire diasporas that are completely underrepresented, or our stories are told by white speakers in white places. I wanted to use my work to push ideas - propaganda, essentially - about reclaiming power, creating our own radical visions about where we belong, come from, and are going. After all, immigrants are the first travellers in time and space.

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Zahra 2 and Aneela from Surreal Body

You work with embellished photography that brings together images, painting and mixed media. Tell us about your explorations with this medium.

I went to a museum show here in Ontario that was all about embellished photography, called The Art Of The Painted Photograph by Deepali Diwan. I was struck by its in-betweenness, its surreal quality. For some of them, you couldn’t tell between the photograph and the painting. Others were very imaginative and flamboyant. Many of them served to push the spectacle of royalty in regards to the masses and monarchy, touching on that power dynamic and the intimidation associated with it.

It’s a pretty specific process - I have to shoot flatly and work flatly to retain the look I want, or the quality I see in the original medium itself. It moves through flat composition rather than depth of field, and is colour-reliant. It’s a very fun medium to work with.

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A Scavenger First and Aftab

In your latest project Surreal Body, your subjects are represented in alternative narratives as they become animals, waves, deities and monsters. Take us through the ideas behind the project.

With this round of the embellished photography work, there was the need to push it into hyper-dimensionality and radical surrealism but still use the medium of photography. Especially works like A Scavenger First and Swimmer explore ideas of existence (or non-existence), which I think plays into identity politics. Becoming animals or monsters, these new beings carry a mythology of their own and thereby negate or disrupt the mythologies handed to them. I’m taking a hiatus from this medium of work as I have severely overused it and need a break!

We Come Alive From Eating Your Flesh is your comment on the aftermath of colonialism. What drew you to this exploration of the throne as a symbol of archaic power?

I just love and am fascinated by any objects made for empires. Like the artifacts and sacred spaces made in the name of God for the Catholic Church, a lot of it is built in servitude, yet very heavily worked, and in full submission to a higher power which may or may not be real. I think it is revolutionary to subvert or repurpose these artifacts and place new types of citizens into these seats of power. It can trip a switch in people and make them think about who these objects are made for and how real they are to reposition themselves out of oppression and into revolution.

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The Husband and The Wife from We Come Alive From Eating Your Flesh

Where do you see yourself in the present volatile and shifting global landscape of identity politics?

I am going to be an active participant till the end of my life, hopefully. I am an immigrant and we are the future of citizenship. The countries choosing to restrict our flow, ban us and limit our progress are taking a fast ride straight to the rear end of progress.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently in the midst of work for the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto, corporate commissions and will be doing more sculptures soon. In November, I plan to visit Delhi for a collaborative residency with my friends Norblack Norwhite.

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