Empowering the Diaspora Through Art. An Interview with Rajni Perera

Not all artists take risks with their work; it’s common to find a comfortable niche that clicks and to create art within those boundaries. But it’s those artists that resist easy commerciality, those that have an important message, that we always get excited by. Enter Rajni Perera, a young and passionate Toronto-based artist who has been unsettling the Toronto art scene for the past few years, and she is now making a splash in Amsterdam and the international art market through The Public House of Art’s special exhibition – Identity Kit. Her artworks always touch on those ‘touchy’ subjects: race, immigration, and the ‘other’. But instead of creating dark and critical works, Perera focuses on vibrantly empowering and elevating her subjects. Weaving different types of art making; like photography, painting, and digital media with diverse styles inspired by miniaturist art, sci-fi illustration, and plain old portraiture. The result is an explosion of colours, patterns, and a heavy dose of intrigue. Who are these young warriors? What surreal world do they live in, and where can I get some of that badass confidence? We had the pleasure of interviewing Rajni Perera and getting to the heart of why she risks all for her art and message.

Rajni Perera. Zahra. 2016. Embellished Photography. Edition of 30.

PHOA: Why do you feel the need to portray young-immigrants and racialised subjects in your art?

RP: Mostly because making identity-politics based work is given a bad wrap and I disagree. It has never been more important to discuss who we all are and WHY that is. The other reason is that I myself am a young immigrant and a racialised subject. Diasporic citizens are the future of citizens.

PHOA: Do you agree with the statement 'It doesn't matter where the (bleep) you come from anymore' or do you think we still have some ways to go before this is true? 

RP: I think I already answered that. The irrelevance of peoples' origins is a concept reserved for those privileged enough to live in a bubble where it may not matter to them, or those that benefit from the erasure of immigrant identities.

Rajni Perera. Kareem. 2016. Embellished Photography. Edition of 30.

PHOA: You work a lot with Eastern and Western styles of image making, from Rajput miniature art to sci-fi illustrations. Do you think of this as a representation of diasporic youth today? Somewhere between the traditions of their root culture and the lure of fantasy worlds? 

RP: The use of science fiction and surreal/fantasy aesthetics in my work comes from a need for me to see myself reflected in it. It is a white male narrative and ideology that lies behind the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy, so capturing the diasporic person's burgeoning role in this very special genre is a key goal behind what I'm working towards as an artist. The influence of miniaturist aesthetics is coincidental; I am attracted to it because it happens to resemble the flat look of manga and anime, and because I am culturally tied to it.

PHOA:  Tell us a bit more about the sitters for your series, Zahra, Kareem, and Nana. Who are they? Do they fit into the 'Identity Kit' exhibition statement? 

RP: Zahra, Kareem and Nana are all people I know here in Toronto, whom I reached out to for this series. They are all successful against the odds; they are all exceptional diasporic citizens who happen to have beautiful faces. Although the Identity Kit exhibition has an inclusivist view of identity politics, I think my work lies slightly outside of this view but might work as a critical addition to the exhibition overall.

Rajni Perera. Nana. 2016. Embellished Photography. Edition of 30.

PHOA: What does the future of identity look like to you? 

RP: The future of identity comes through many channels - technology, physical movement of peoples, self-identification through institutional- verses has the goal of ultimate fluidity but there are many bridges to cross and some to burn. To me it looks like a crystal with many facets that, depending on which angle you're looking at it looks simpler or more complex. And it's changing all the time, which keeps my practice on its toes.

Hungry for more? Check out Rajni Perera’s artist page and hear what she has to say about the origins of embellished photography, the animals that appear in her works, and how she connects her subjects to exalted royalty. Or are you ready to make the leap? Purchase one of her limited edition embellished photographs here.