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 heroines 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.”