Rajni Perera, Sri-Lankan born, is a Toronto-based artist inspired by everything under the sun. With influences ranging from paleontology to futurism, Rajni’s creative focus lies in merging remnants from the past with the astronomical proportions of the future unknown. Her work reflects her unique perspective on the ethnicity and organic richness of discovery, science and mythical creation. We visited Rajni’s studio to capture a sneak peek of her latest series in the works and chat about inspiration, immigrant art and keeping it real.
What’s your first memory related to art?
My first memory would probably be doing these oil pastel drawings when I was young in Sri Lanka. The first memory I have of my art creating a response in other people would be when I won a local TV station’s children’s art competition. My mother was working there and entered a little landscape I had drawn and it got on TV. That could have been my first taste of artistic confidence. My parents continued supporting and encouraging my work, and I haven’t stopped drawing and painting and looking for ways to talk about my fantasies.
Your art is influenced by everything from archeology to futurism. What are your major inspirations?
It’s an endless list. Paleontology, astronomy, ethnography are a few. Ethnography is this crazy thing where colonizers of ‘new worlds’ would go out and categorize its peoples pictorially in catalogues and things like that. Paleontology is my nerdy love of prehistoric life that never went away. I also saw Jurassic Park when I was about seven years old and that stuck with me in a big way. Ever since I was young I’ve needed to rediscover these antique worlds and find a relationship with the new. Astronomy to me means hope, in a childish kind of way. My paintings don’t look too grown up, I suppose, because of these young nods to the fantasy, science fiction and comic book genres.
If you weren’t an artist would you enter one of those fields?
Oh absolutely. Any field associated with discovery and invention, where you dig to find something new. There’s definitely a polarity I’m interested in transmitting through my art: the earthy roots of archeology and the ascension related with astronomy. Going both up and down, in two directions at the same time and bringing these two worlds together.
Have you adopted any aspects from your Sri Lankan culture into your art?
I look at a lot of old art that comes from Southeast Asia. Rajput and Mughal Miniaturism, Buddhist and Tantric art, the visuals are very beautiful and intricate. I was taught quite a bit about European art in school which was either biblical or landscapes or abstraction, but in Ancient Southeast art I found all the sex, death and blood anyone could ever wish for. I also love looking back in time to paintings of deities and seeing the folklore and religious icons associated with them, the mythology and the spiritual and terrible sides to these gods and demi-gods.
How has being in Toronto affected you and your art work?
It’s a double-edged sword. Toronto’s a city that has so many different kinds of people from all over the world, there’s a huge variety of mentalities and perspectives. I love looking at immigrant culture here and in other cities that have diasporic peoples. I’m inspired by the way that immigrant artists re-appropriate certain symbols of antiquity in a completely different context, giving them different looks and making something new with these old images. I believe this is where the real richness of Toronto’s art culture comes out. At the same time, immigrant artists are extremely under-represented here. But instead of deterring and discouraging me, this makes me more determined to put myself and my art out there.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a bunch of factors. One of them being that the art support system that happens here isn’t looking outside of an immediate circle to reach out to more people. Maybe a little more work needs to be put into promoting on a wider scale or adopting a much less exclusive philosophy. I believe that art should start to be as inclusive as possible. Minds need to be opened and you have to embrace different audiences, artistic styles and take risks. Getting rid of elitism and exclusivity in the art world is the next step and it needs to happen. That way art can really change minds and be more effective as a social conduit for change.
What was Third Culture, the group show that went up during Nuit Blanche like?
It was curated by Andrew Hicks (Andycapp) who’s been the guy behind Bang!TheParty for years now. I was just talking to him the other day telling him that shows like this have to be a yearly thing. It was great, I’m so honoured to have formed part of it and worked with artists like Todd Westendorp and Nep Sidhu. Really gifted people. We all promoted the show and Andy’s curatorial debut was pretty great. I got a lot of positive feedback, a lot of people felt like that show spoke to them, which is what we were going for. I’m happy to having taken part.
You’re also working on your latest series “AFRIKA GALAKTIKA”. How’s that going?
It’s exciting. I’ve just applied for a grant and am working towards something like a 20-piece series, including some ceramic sculpture. I’m having a lot of fun making this series, I want to talk about exoticism in a new way that is new and sort of glamorous with a scifi edge. When I start a piece I have a very specific vision of what I want and my work process is very singular and focused. I’m going into blaxploitation and afrofuturism with AFRIKA and I find new inspiration all the time through things like street style, high fashion, anime, comics, the internet…I have a lot of friends who design clothing and jewelery, and being surrounded by that type of atmosphere is great. They’re full of creative sparks and it’s entirely infectious.
Tell me about your collaboration with designers “Nor Black nor White”!
NorBlackNorWhite are these two awesome women I know through people here in Toronto. They go between Toronto and India and tailor these fucking awesome cosmic garments and I swear they give you powers when you wear them. Their work philosophy is exceptional as well because they work to sustain artisanal textile fabrication in different communities around India. The nature of our collaboration is a secret for now but I can say we travel on creative parallels and were bound to work together at some point.
What advice would you give to emerging artists in Toronto?
Stay true to your vision. If you went to school, spend time unlearning what you’ve been taught and adopting the work ethic that it (should have) created in you, as well as the fundamentals that really matter. The rest is opinion and it should be treated that way. No-one can tell you what works for you and what doesn’t in terms of what you want to paint. Be kind to yourself and believe in your vision. Explore as much as you humanly can. Push yourself till it hurts.
Follow Rajni Perera’s work on http://www.rajniperera.com