Rajni Perera unveils the latest and largest commission to date in her lauded Traveller series at RBC's booth during Art Toronto. This follows TRAVELLER, an exhibition concurrently running at Patel|Division projects, complete with an opening filled with a throng of curious eyes and minds twisted by the world Perera's work inhabits.
A few weeks, months, millennia later – the not-so-near future – we'll burn that world and the Travellers, our future diasporic community, will be left to make sense of it all; a new reality of off-world commuting, navigating inhospitable terrain and endless territorial disputes.
With the end of the world as we know it in mind, Perera's version of the future is an optimistic one, a future where the diaspora wears its past, an ancestral armour made of stories, textiles, and jewelry, to protect itself. It could be a metaphor, but Perera has devoured too much science fiction and anime to leave it there. Instead, the Travellers are futuristic beings, alive on canvas, faces turned away or obscured by their polychromatic armour.
“As long as I've had a career, I think even in the very beginning with my graduating body of work from OCAD, there was a lot of sci-fi, fantasy, and surrealism in the work," says Perera. “I'm really interested in who's alive after we burn the world – who is that and what do they look like? What are they using to protect themselves? How are they navigating this world?"
To Perera, the Traveller series is about creating mythology for future diaspora and science fiction is the language she speaks. Born in Colombo, and shuffled from Australia to the U.S. before immigrating to Canada with her family, Perera found herself drawn to anime from an early age. “In Sri Lanka, we got Japanese programming so some of the first things I saw on TV were Robotech and the original Astro Boy," she says. “When I came here (to North America) it was Sailor Moon and late night Teletoon things."
Down the vortex she went, finding the works of Hiyao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli hits like Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service. “Epic stories that were so beautiful and beautifully rendered and it was the myths inside them that I was realizing I was heavily drawn to," she says. “As somebody who has left a place and gone to another place, you need to fill up yourself with the things that will motivate you or inspire you, that will give you strength when you don't have any."
After OCAD University, Perera funded her own shows. “Nobody wanted to put the work anywhere – I could sell but I couldn't get it into a gallery." This period of time allowed the artist to develop the business skills and promotional knowledge necessary to not only float her own practice and provide for her family, but to raise gallery profiles and create community around the work. Shortly after signing with Devan Patel of Patel Gallery, she met RBC's curatorial team in 2017. The RBC Emerging Artists Project had funded the catalogue for the Art Gallery of York University exhibition Migrating the Margins, which showcased work from emerging Scarborough artists. Perera was one of the artists.
“Meeting Stefan and Corrie changed a lot of things," says Perera, of Stefan Hancherow, associate art curator and Corrie Jackson, senior art curator for RBC. “My impression of collectors and institutions changed quite a bit – (they're) putting perspectives forward that otherwise wouldn't be reflected."
It's compounded by the level of trust the RBC team has shown with its commission.
Tones of resilience are there in her work, especially the Traveller series, but Perera says she doesn't see it as a responsibility to make identity politics the focal point. “It's my responsibility as an artist to create honestly and thoughtfully and to create a mirror," she says. “In the end, artwork is a mirror, right? If you don't see yourself, you're not really going to relate to it."
For the RBC commission, which debuted at Art Toronto, Perera co-opted her strange brew of niche subcultural interests with unprecedented access to RBC's collection. The commission is anchored in having ascending artists consider their work's role within the narrative of Canadian Art History that lives through the RBC collection.
Perera says sifting through the RBC collection exposed her to both the lack of figurative works as well as the type of risks the RBC curatorial team has taken. “It made me feel good to see how far my work stands outside of what they've collected," she says. “But I still felt very comfortable being commissioned into the collection."
Although the piece commissioned by RBC lives within the world of her Traveller series, Perera says it's something a little different. The size of it allowed her to try some new things and work with dry media.
“I wanted to push my practice and push the series a little," she says.
The Traveller's armour is embedded with a lace pattern, referencing Sri Lanka's colonial Beeralu lace economy. The figure is wearing strange brass jewelry. “I look at a lot of fashion, a lot of jewelry, and I try to take those things to another place, the way they would be reiterated by a civilization that's 5,000 or 10,000 years into our future.
"The Traveller is in front of a dome structure, which the artist explains is a rendering by Etienne Boulee of an unbuilt cenotaph honouring physicist Isaac Newton. It's an ode to someone Perera says laid the groundwork for the theorizing in the golden age science fiction she grew up reading.
The cenotaph was meant to mean so much more than just a resting spot for the physicist,explains Perera, it was also meant to be a place of communal gathering. And this Traveller out front of it is “a sort of mythical or deified figure ... I was thinking about Saraswati, the goddess of music, studying and intellectual pursuit.
"The figure is in motion, a momentary pause while their clothes continue forward, another technique Perera has yet to explore with the series. It gives the impression the voyeur is speeding past in a futuristic vehicle only to lock eyes with a Traveller exiting the cenotaph, a promise of hope – Perera's optimism that even after the world burns, the diasporic communities, wherever they end up, will gather in their ancestral armour to discuss the things that tie us all together, like music and the pursuit of understanding.
“I think that's one difference between my work and other work that is diasporically centred– on one hand there can be a focus on trauma, sadness and struggle," she says. “But I like to go the other direction and tell a joyful story of beauty and hope ... to create the story of victory."