Bhenji Ra is a trans icon and central figure in the Sydney queer scene whose interdisciplinary practice of dance performance and video focuses on Indigenous representation and queer people of color. Working with themes of cultural theory and identity, Ra employs her own personal history to reimagine the realm of performance. Ra has shown work alongside Justin Shoulder at the 8th Asia Pacific Trienalle, ICA in London, and most recently ACMI in Melbourne. Ra is a key member of the primarily queer and trans POC circle of dancers and performance artists known as Slé.
You’re the mother at House of Slé, and your visual art is tied to community. Can you discuss the importance of your Slé family, or other communities, in your work?
My work will always have a proximity to community, as so much of what I do is informed by my own survival, which I owe to the communities I’ve come from and that have held me. Even when I’m working on the solo body, either in performance or the visual, there are threads of symbolism and language within the work that are connected to a specific collectivity that has shaped me in some way. As the mother to a house of young queer people of color, it is my responsibility to make sure my children feel like they can access their community as a framework to inform their practice, but also a tool to feel connected and affirmed, especially when working within the greater isolating art world.
Is mentorship important in your work as an artist? How important is collaboration?
What I’m more interested in is tradition, and how language and cultural tools are passed on—especially when there are these intersections of queerness. Being queer, I’ve had to reimagine what mentorship looks like, because it doesn’t always equate to linear cultural ties. I seek out alternative modes of understanding and embodying my own genealogy. When we are dismissed from our cultural and traditional families, our queer genealogy and family reimagines that space for us. Collaboration for me somehow follows that same thread—even when I cannot access my relatives or those cultural mentors, I can imagine them working within my body to inform my work. My work will always be collaborative even when working solo, as it’s always containing a conversation or response to those within my history.
You’ve spoken about decolonizing your body and imagining a new future within your work. What do you see as the role of the artist on a large scale? Can art ever not be political?
I’ve never seen my work as political, and at times have resisted those labels only because I feel it keeps artists, especially queer artists of color, categorized as “other,” which I refuse to be. In a lot of ways, refusing to be political has shifted my work deeper into “fantasy” and spectacle actions. This is a way to resist being seen as representative or easily labeled, which allows greater potential and further reach. I can’t speak for any artist other than myself, but I’m coming to the point in my life where my work needs to function as a step towards survival and legacy, either by imagining these new futures where myself and others can flourish, or by simply archiving our experience. I guess the role that I’m playing now is allowing these imagined futures to exist and stand as non-traditional modes of being for those who identify outside of dominant narratives.
What conditions are best for you creatively? How do you create the best conditions for thriving and making work within?
Negotiating space and time can sometimes be hard, especially for someone like myself whose constant is traversing through so many different spaces and communities. I think on a “professional” level I want to say having a studio practice is ideal, but somehow I always find it isolating eventually. I’m finding that existing in the world, as difficult as it can be, manifests more magic for me. I love writing on public transportation; in fact, I’m answering most of these questions while stuck in deep traffic in downtown Manila. There’s something about everything happening at once, or even the potential for conflict and disruption, that informs what I’m doing and keeps me activated. Even most of my choreography has come from reading my own body in relation to public space.