Artwork by Rajni Perera
by Natasha Chaykowski and Rajni Perera
Since becoming attuned to Rajni Perera’s works, I have been made keenly aware that any attempt to read them means signing a pact and agreement to be simultaneously read myself. Attracted by her centring of the female body, one engages with Perera’s oeuvre seeking understanding of her technique and conceptual sensibilities. Perera’s works offer themselves for our consumption; however, as we go deeper, we ourselves become the desired sacrifice to be consumed on the altar of the divine feminine.
To read Rajni Perera is to look into her mind, only to have a mirror appear and reveal all of the preconceived notions, ideas and contorted fantasies one projects upon her work. Her works are not for the faint of heart, nor for those who enjoy the trappings of ethnography and waxing nostalgic about the Empire’s glory days. Perera is wholly contemporary; hence, why she is considered futuristic to those who revel in the past. And for those seeking to satiate their fetishism, their hunger is met with beautifully rendered, conceptually rigorous disregard.
In 2011, when Perera graduated from OCAD University in Toronto, she presented a series called The New Ethnography as her culminating body of work that won the university’s Medal for Painting and Drawing. Early in her career, Perera’s investigation of the representation of the coloured woman’s body took centre stage. The title of the aforementioned series offers intriguing entry points for assessment. For centuries, the coloured body has been a focal point and an object of intense and violent scientific study. For instance, modern gynecology stems from brutal experiments on the bodies of enslaved African-American women. Similarly, women of colour throughout the world have been used, abused and disposed of for the purposes of research and experimentation by colonialist exploiters and their advocates.
Do not think for one moment that Rajni Perera has not read these histories.
The New Ethnography inverts these tropes and presents portraits of women in control – present, embodied and unbothered by spectators. In magnificently executed strokes of vibrant colour and the luxuriant lines of the female form, Perera does away with the objectified subject and delivers whole women, bold women, women who may have suffered abuse but who are neither powerless nor permanently damaged.
Concurrently, Perera is being a little cheeky with her audience. She knows that viewers expect – subconsciously or not – to ogle these women and project onto them their shame, misogyny and/or fetishism. As a counter, Perera’s women are unbothered: too busy admiring themselves, each other, centring their needs, desires and pleasure. This proactive positionality renders these women protected against the obtrusiveness of past ethnographies that still linger on – even in the contemporary art world.
The New Ethnography represented– and still represents – an intellectual excavation to debunk and reveal the monstrous results of centuries of scientific investigation done to Brown and Black women, at the expense of their lives. Moreover, for Perera, fresh out of art school at the time, this series was a springboard that positioned her as a painter with an enviable technique and aesthetic. Additionally, she revealed herself as a historiographer and ethnographer adept at illuminating Black and Brown women’s experiences as a way of restoring harmony and balance to a still disjointed historical narrative that relegates Brown and Black women to the status of wretched detritus.
Unsurprisingly, much of Perera’s subsequent work has been associated with Afro-Futurism, particularly her Afrika Galaktika series. This series centres a Black heroine in combat with other Black and Brown women warriors against an invisible other. The bodies of these women are lush, mature and fecund. They are in complete opposition to the pubescent, vapid and meek women painted by Orientalists, and offered as the standard in contemporary pop culture. These women occupy powerful stances, intense gazes and intentional movements. They embody the qualities of the Mino, the all-women army regiment active during the period of the Dahomey Kingdom. They are as fearless as Queen Nzinga1, known for advocating and fighting for the freedom of her people from the Portuguese. Like the bird form of the Ìyàmi Àjé2, they feed upon the innards of those whose transgressions have caused disharmony in the world. They are tantricas, protectors and warrior women in the tradition of the Hindu goddess Ka¯ l¯ı, who stands upon the demons she conquers in a defiant show of victory.
To imbue Afrika Galaktika with these qualities one must know the various histories of warrior women throughout time and across cultures. Where Afro-Futurism has claimed its role, in part, as a tool for creating new histories due to the alleged erasure of the history of people of African descent, Perera has searched the historical record, and her own blood’s memory, for a reconnection to the source. This source, as Perera relays to us, rightly centres women as the progenitors and protectors of families and communities throughout the world. Perera’s portraits pay tribute to the Black woman as the original ancestor of all humankind. Aesthetically, she shows women as they are in environments where they remain supreme. These women are not objects to be manipulated, devoured and disposed. Rather, these women are active participants in, and collaborators and creators of, their environments and destinies.
The history of Sri Lanka, Perera’s homeland, is one coloured, in part, by Indian influence and engagement. This is to be expected, in light of the geographic proximity between the two countries, and Perera’s knowledge of the Indian aesthetic trends that emerged during the colonial occupation of South Asia. Together, they provide a rich landscape for her excavations around mythmaking, masculinity, the divinization of monarchy and the image as a performance of power.
Of her diptych Royal Couple, Perera states, “The medium of self-portraiture and portraiture is investigated as a window into the practices of the glitterati who commissioned a lot of the first portraiture around turn of the [20th] century [in] India.”3 Perera’s dives deeper. We know the monetary value of a given artwork is often relative. It depends as much on the artist’s labour and pedigree, as well as it does on his or her gallerist’s monthly rent and aptitude for deal making.
In the series Royal Couple and We Come Alive From Eating Your Flesh, Perera critiques the mythology of value from three angles: that of the maker, who, like any artist, wants her work to be commercially viable; that of the historical consumers of embellished photography, who buy to flaunt their spending power; but also that of the individuals who played decisive roles in complicating the colonial and post-colonial realities of South Asia. These perspectives converge on Perera’s canvases in an analysis that is as much about aesthetic tendency, as it is the socio-political realities of power, which, was, and still is, in constant flux.
Mythmaking is how people make themselves relevant in a world of ever-competing interests and trends that wax and wane. Perera also investigates the associated expenses of creating these great stories. In Royal Couple, the expense is the destruction of the natural world and a kind of comatose nostalgia for the days of old, as those in power actively destroy the environment, in the name of progress. But what truly is progress, if in the end there is nowhere to sustain existence and thus, no one left to read the myth?
In the 2012 Royal Ontario Museum exhibition Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs, curator Deepali Dewan noted that in India, unlike the West, photography did not replace painting as the most accurate depiction of reality. In India, photographs were used to augment the aesthetic quality of painting, which was accorded a status indicative of a higher plane of existence, also referred to as “hyper-reality.”4
Perera’s Maharanis series is a 21st-century nod to embellished photography as a tool for exalting individuals, namely the monarchy, to the status of divinity. This is another instance where women are intentionally centred and are metaphors for the divine. Black and white photographs are layered with rich colours intertwined with profound symbolism. Each subject wears a crown atop her head painted in gold. In two images, the subjects hold snakes in their hands, a symbol of rebirth, transformation and fertility.
That a technique developed in the 19th century as a show of wealth and privilege by the wealthy and powerful in their homeland would now be used to exalt women to the status of divinity reveals the layers of social and history Perera has excavated. Be clear that Perera understands her audience. Many, particularly in the West, may see these images as an unimaginative application of Orientalism. In reality, we are witnessing Perera’s vision for the world expertly performed through the lens of a genre typically used to exalt the powerful and the, primarily, male. Perera uses the genre to subvert the western gaze. These women gaze calmly, but confidently outward, making eye contact with the viewer. This is an active, critical engagement in which the viewer is invited to participate in the adoration and admiration of the divine.
As an artist, Perera is ever growing: always moving, always planning, always MAKING. The narratives we read about her now, will not be the narratives written and spoken about her a few months from now. Why and how should we read Rajni Perera today? To offer suggestions, I must examine the reasons why I continually come back to Perera’s oeuvre. In an era of social media celebrity, internet spirituality, fake news and a litany of various categories of toxic distraction, Perera confronts and interrogates the historical archive, which reminds her and us that where we are now has happened previously. Perera takes that information to her canvas and offers up a vision of what is possible, replete with suggestions for how to turn this potential into reality.
She centres Black and Brown women. More saliently, she centres self-determined Black and Brown women who have dominion over their bodies and minds. These women, in turn, centre each other. This act of double centring is where, I believe, Perera proffers time and place for substantive, generative engagement about women’s work for each other, for our families and communities. The existence of this visual example is, in and of itself, powerful, but it will be our implementation of Perera’s vision that spurs the profound transformation we so dearly need.
Reading Perera reminds us to be unabashed, unafraid and unapologetic. There is no transformation without effort, no result without belief. Perera’s works exemplify a self-determined and self-disciplined praxis, fully cognizant of history, and willing to problematize it. The result is an abjectly beautiful, multidisciplinary, nimble and accessible narrative – a seminal text, if you will – that aligns with and offers a relevant, meaningful vision for the now.