Making space in outer space: Rajni Perera’s sci-fi odyssey lands at the McMichael
By: Leah Collins
November 25, 2022
Original URL: rajni-perera-interview-futures-mcmichael-canadian-art-collection
This show is a million light years away from the Group of Seven, and that’s a good thing.
Rajni Perera (b. 1985), I take a journey, you take a journey, we take a journey together, 2020, leather, trim, cotton, beads, metallic thread, beeralu lace, rubber gas mask, 25.4 × 22.9 × 17.8 cm, Paul and Mary Dailey Desmarais III, Photo: Nep Sidhu / Courtesy of Patel Brown,© Rajni Perera
As the long-time home of the Group of Seven, you could argue the McMichael Canadian Art Collection has always been a place where you could find fantasy landscapes of a sort. But the latest work to arrive at the gallery isn’t another terra nullius take on Canadian history. Rather, it’s a spectacular sci-fi story involving a cast of beautiful mutants, off-world explorers that have sprung from the imagination of Rajni Perera.
Futures, now appearing on the second floor of the McMichael, is Perera’s first ever survey show, and it arrives at an already busy time for the Toronto-based artist. Last month, she accepted the $25,000 MOCA Toronto Award, and she’ll debut an exhibition at that museum in 2024. Next week, she launches Beyond the Words of Earth at Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia, a show that opens on the heels of a previous solo outing in Birmingham, England.
A little more than a decade ago, things couldn’t have been more different for Perera. Back then, if she was appearing in an exhibition, she probably curated the show herself, all while juggling her coursework at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD U). And in those days, the McMichael wouldn’t have been on her radar, even as a weekend getaway. “When I was at OCAD, I hated the Group of Seven,” laughs Perera, cursing the memory of back-to-back lectures on Tom Thomson et al.
Born in Sri Lanka, raised in Scarborough and North York, and living in downtown Toronto (where nearly half the population is fellow immigrants), Perera saw nothing in the Group of Seven landscapes being taught. “It’s historical in a certain colonial-ass way that I’m not interested in,” she says, “and being shown that work over and over again, you feel completely excluded from the canon.”
That canon is exactly what the McMichael is striving to open up. It’s the only public art institution in the country that’s exclusively focused on Canadian art, and under the leadership of Sarah Milroy, who took the position of Chief Curator in 2018, its programming is making strides toward better representing the reality of who lives here, and makes art here.
Perera’s exhibition, which offers a metaphor for the immigrant experience, is one nod toward that mission. Upcoming shows will highlight Indigenous artists Meryl McMaster and Dempsey Bob, and as Milroy told the Toronto Star this fall, she intends to hire a curator of Indigenous art in the next fiscal year. “Sarah Milroy has been responsible for this whole cultural shift at the McMichael,” says Perera. “If she would have been doing that work when I was in school, maybe I wouldn’t have angsty feelings about the Group of Seven.”
It’s Milroy who approached Perera about doing an exhibition at the McMichael, and the show has been designed to go on the road. After closing in May, it’s expected to appear at three more museums in Ontario (Carleton University Art Gallery, Art Windsor-Essex and McMaster University Art Gallery). The exhibition largely pulls from the artist’s Traveller series, a body of work that includes paintings, textiles, photographs and “pollution wear” masks. Like so much of what Perera creates, Traveller is set in a sci-fi universe, and like other strong examples of the genre, its imaginary world isn’t so different from our own.
The Travellers themselves are climate refugees — Black and brown (and blue and crimson) Earthlings who are spectacularly outfitted in power-clashing prints and armour, survival gear that’s been engineered for a world without drinkable water or breathable air. These people are thriving, not surviving; their beauty confirms it. And their sartorial splendour also hints at a Utopian vibe, never mind the grim and all too plausible premise. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, environmental scholar Britt Wray notes we’re on the verge of living in the Travellers’ reality: there will be as many as 1 billion climate migrants “on the move by 2050,” she writes, citing estimates from the World Bank and UN. Most of those people will be fleeing South Asia, South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Futures begins its run at the McMichael just as Perera’s decided to end the Traveller series. After producing roughly 60 works for the project, she’s ready to put it behind her. “It’s relevant and timely and it’s something that needs to be talked about now, but it’s just a series that’s really gone way too long,” she says. Still, she plans to keep making work on the subject of the climate crisis, and how it relates to the lives of immigrants. She told us a little more about that, and the origins of Traveller, when we reached her by phone in Toronto.
Media wishing to request an interview with exhibition artists, curators, or to obtain high-resolution images of the artworks are asked to contact Sam Cheung at firstname.lastname@example.org or 905.893.1121 ext. 2210.
Ces informations sont aussi disponible en français.
ABOUT THE MCMICHAEL CANADIAN ART COLLECTION
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection is an agency of the Government of Ontario and acknowledges the support of the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, and the McMichael Canadian Art Foundation. It is the only major museum in the country devoted exclusively to Canadian art. In addition to touring exhibitions, the McMichael houses a permanent collection of more than 6,500 works by historic and contemporary Canadian artists, including Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, Indigenous artists and artists from many diasporic communities in Canada. The Gallery is located on 100 acres of forested land and hiking trails at 10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, north of Major Mackenzie Drive in the City of Vaughan. For more information, please visit mcmichael.com.