PUBLISHED IN VAULT | Issue 32, 2020

For multidisciplinary artist and dancer Bhenji Ra, every movement is an act of cultural survival and collective agency. Fueled by ancestral energies, modern-day trauma and social power structures, her body-centred practice is a history lesson on decolonial awakening and the cruciality of belonging and empowerment for intersectional people of colour. 

‘When the colour of your skin is seen as a weapon, you will never be seen as unarmed.’ This universal quote has passed through marginalised mouths over the years, via protest signs, community speeches, and Instagram reposts—and it’s a line that dug into my mind during my conversation with Sydney-based artist Bhenji Ra. Grounded by her lived experiences as a trans woman of Filipinx descent, Ra uses her body as an investigational device—oscillating between dance, choreography, video installations, and club events—to amplify trans, queer, migrant, and intercultural narratives. So, let me remix this quote: Ra is a moving target and she is definitely armed. Live stages, gallery foyers, the streets, and social media feeds become performative vehicles for the artist to dispense communal energies of survival and liberation.

Ra runs the iconic Sissy Ball, touted as the largest annual community ball event in the Asia Pacific. She also mentors emerging trans and queer dancers as the ‘Mother’ of  Western Sydney vogue group, House of Slé, which she established after time spent with QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Colour) communities in New York, where she was studying dance during her early twenties. “When I came back to Sydney,” she tells me, “I found out that there were pockets of young trans and gender diverse people of colour who were living in the suburbs, and who had only experienced vogue and foreign dance culture online, but couldn’t find any [physical] spaces where they could manifest or utilise this.” Forming the house gave Ra a platform to invest in the “intersection of culture and belonging and queerness” that she says was absent during her childhood years growing up in Moruya,New South Wales. “It was white suburbia,” she describes, “so there was always some high-drama about race and the colour of my family’s skin.” Being categorised as ‘other’ led Ra to “weaponise this experience,” she recalls. “Declaring I wasn’t comfortable in my own body as a five-year-old was probably the first step in practicing that type of liberation.” 

Today, Ra is a highly-sought-after artist who continues to point her vogue-twirled finger towards radical projects and collaborations that advance the “future folklore of trans identities.” Alongside her collaborator, Filipinx artist Justin Shoulder, Ra haunted the Queensland Art Gallery hallways for APT 8 in 2015 with Ex Nilalang: Incarnations, a performative ode to Philippines spirit mythologies. In early 2020, for In Muva we trust, the duo bathed the National Gallery of Australia’s iconic facade in a digital arcadia of supernatural beings and ancient, pristine landscapes: a commentary about pre-colonial synergy between humans and the environment. A staunch advocate for social justice, Ra gave an anthemic speech about intersectional empowerment at Miami’s Creative Time Summit in 2017. “We are the girls who defied colonisation, demonisation, U.S. imperialism and cultural erasure,” she declared, “we are the girls whose names will remain marked by the daughters to come; a never-ending ecology, a genealogy that cannot be forgotten, no rising seas or government policy could take away from our mythology.” My following conversation with Ra takes place while she’s on the road embarked on a spiritual “self-survival journey” to recalibrate her practice. Ra is always on the move.

In pre-colonial Philippines, gender non conforming people—or two-spirited beings called ‘baklas’—were celebrated and revered. Western belief systems have since sought to suppress this existence. As a trans woman of colour, how do you reclaim ‘bakla’ power within your interdisciplinary work and collaborations?

‘Bakla’ is my favourite Tagalog word. When you break it down, with its precolonial ‘Baybayin’ script, you see a literal journey between the feminine and masculine, bridged by a river of togetherness: ‘Ka’. I’m obsessed with this. It’s what’s anchored a lot of my work and self-shaping of who I am. It’s very affirming! When I started working with Justin Shoulder, we were both coming from queer radicalised spaces, so the practice of weaponsing language was very much a part of our DNA. Transferring that practice is always going to be hard when you’re up against centuries of colonilsation and anti-women, anti-queer propaganda, but I can honestly say I’ve seen more and more Filipinx artists claim and uplift that identity, it’s so cool! Also, back in the motherland [Philippines], there’s a long-standing practice amongst queer and gender non conforming Filipinx artists who work against these negative stereotypes within gay pagaentry and entertainment. I think between that world and spaces in Australia, it’s easy to see how something like Sissy Ball, or any celebratory spaces for trans folx would find its way to the front of Sydney’s queer scene. I feel super proud to now see my daughters in the House of Slé keep pushing these trans identity boundaries.

Key to your practice is the redistribution of ancestral skills. In 2019, you traveled to the Sulu archipelago to learn the Pangalay fingernail dance from a Tausug Elder.  Can you explain the concept behind Pangalay?

Pangalay is this performance that doesn’t need a real cultural traditional framework [because] it’s constantly in rotation and constantly spiraling around itself. Pangalay doesn’t need a song, it just needs the body to manifest itself. When I was 17, I took folk dance classes in Manila, and that’s when I came across Pangalay. I was like, damn, it’s so much like voguing! You had these women that were framing everything within their hands. It’s also this celestial form that slips through gender, and through traditional and nontraditional spaces. You could perform it to Abba if you wanted to, and I love that! There were these post-colonial ideas about this being a gendered dance; how men were not allowed to do Pangalay, but the Tausug Elder collapsed these ideas for me. It’s like that with Filipino culture: there’s something very progressive about the way we slip between genders and flip through all kinds of colonial constructs. And that’s how trans people have been able to survive for so long.

Read the full feature in VAULT – out in news stands.

Photo credit: Bhenji Ra, Sissy Ball 2020, photo: Ken Leanfore.