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Performance artist Rakini Devi’s first solo exhibition brings her classical dance training to a multilayered investigation of how women are erased by misogyny and violence. By Fiona Kelly McGregor.

Performance artist Rakini Devi

Rakini Devi’s performance piece The Female Pope.
Credit: Heidrun Löhr

Rakini Devi never wanted to exhibit her visual art. “It all seemed so daunting,” she says to me on the muggy afternoon I visit. The scrapbooks she kept from an early age were private. Later, when she became a dancer, these evolved into art journals where she thrashed out ideas, but for decades her main media has been performance related.

For her first solo show Inhabiting Erasures, which opens this weekend at Sydney’s Articulate Project Space, Rakini is working on panels in her Marrickville living room. I can see a chalked outline of a female figure, yantras (sacred Hindu diagrams) and script that could be Bengali or Sanskrit. Rakini will create three new large works on canvas and fabric. There will be canopies, some with projections, and each weekend chalk drawings  will be done on the gallery floor as part of a live performance. The titular erasures are of women by misogyny, abuse and violence.

Rakini has been working most of the day but still looks stylish in a short black jacket and black dress whose bodice is printed with an intricate white design. You can’t imagine her going within cooee of a tracksuit or King Gees. She has a natural flamboyance, a sort of East–West rock’n’roll fusion, finished with black-framed glasses and red lipstick, her eyes always lined with kohl, her hair maintained as voluminous black. In attire as elsewhere, art and life blur: costumes are as central to Rakini’s work as outfits are to her every day.

Born in Kolkata, India (she won’t divulge the year) to a Burmese mother and Anglo–Indian father, Devi was educated in a Catholic convent. “I loved school,” she says. “I was very naughty and always being shoved into detention, but the nuns loved me. They would say, ‘You should consider going into the nunnery!’ ”

My eyes are popping out of my head in horror. Rakini’s are shining with glee.

“They fascinated me, their habits – you know, anything to do with costuming – I thought they were so dramatic!”

Rakini’s conversation, like her work and the decor in her house – perhaps also, like the Hindu pantheon itself – teems with detail, history, colour, diverse cultural and religious references and a ribald sense of humour. There are no simple answers; everything connects to everything. A handful of follow-up questions elicits a five-page response.

It’s a life richly lived. “At the age of nine I announced I was following the Hindu path. Even though I didn’t know what the word feminism was, I was very affected by my mother’s stories of her patriarchal upbringing in Burma. She was a practising Buddhist,” she says. “My father worked in the airlines as a radio officer and was a Catholic but a party animal. He only got holy later. My sisters were very influenced by the Burmese side. And one of our cousins was a Brahmin Hindu. We were educated in English and had to learn Hindi and Bengali and my mother didn’t want to confuse us by also speaking in Burmese, which I later regretted.”

Although she first moved to Australia at the age of 18, following her family’s immigration, the Kolkata melting pot of the ’60s and ’70s remains an enduring influence. The “naive, gaudy roadside temples”, posters and iconography of ritual goddess worship from villages and remote locations is the foundation of her highly charged aesthetic. Rakini also cites The Beatles and other pop groups’ interest in India as part of what drew her generation back to their roots. Her physical practice owes most to the rigorous training she underwent as a young adult in Bharatanatyam and Odissi, two forms of Indian classical dance.

In 2019 I saw Kolkata Kali, a durational performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Artbar. Two copies of a 30-minute film made in collaboration with video artist Karl Ockelford were projected side by side on the wall of a long gallery. Rakini danced its length, through and within the imagery of goddesses, mandalas, rotating geometric yantras and Sanskrit and Bengali script. It was a mesmerising work, the complex, fluid motions of Rakini’s arms interweaving with those in the film to create fleeting Shiva-like impressions. Through the chiaroscuro of Ockelford’s negative effects Rakini’s heavily made-up face appeared: startlingly white, the forehead bejewelled, the blood-red lips seeming to seep beyond their outline, the thickly kohled and shadowed eyes wide open, staring.

She stood statuesque between the projections in floor-length robes and a tall headdress. What might have seemed fanciful was actually straightforward. Rakini’s performative project is to inhabit female religious iconography as a protest against misogyny and the abuse of women. The dancing goddess/cloaked Madonna was as beautiful and alluring as she was forbidding. Her power was unequivocal. Here also was the body as Michel Foucault’s literal “inscribed surface of events”.

In classical Indian dance, the complex articulations of the hands alone (mudras) are astonishing in their range and extremity. The untrained eye such as mine reaches for ancient statuary as reference points. Rakini’s explanations are typically layered: some gestures are abstract, others specifically sacred, others relate particular narratives. Yet she doesn’t think the audience needs to understand this vocabulary in order to appreciate the work.

I also saw some of Rakini’s Urban Kali series. Her years of research into the goddess of destruction and renewal were formalised with a doctorate in 2018. Throughout this period, she created shrines (pandals) inspired by old Kolkata. Seated for hours in these busy arrangements of leis, little statues, skulls, incense, mandalas and so on, Rakini’s sumptuously adorned Kali was at once meditative, scary and mischievous.

The influence of La Pocha Nostra, Mexican artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s performance collective with whom Rakini collaborated for several years from 2003, was evident in this series in its distillation of cultural tropes into poses and diorama and its embrace of the most kitsch and stereotypical expression of identity politics.

“La Pocha Nostra changed me, they turned me into a performance artist. Before I was just a dancer,” says Rakini. “They were outrageous, so political.”

“In Australia, people assume it’s very exotic, but she’s anything but,”says Jiva Parthipan, another South Asian–Australian performance artist trained in classical Indian dance. “Some erudite Indian audiences also think that she’s playing up to that. I don’t agree. She draws you in, then punches you in the face.”

While working with La Pocha Nostra, Rakini met Violeta Luna and continued their collaboration as a duet. They were attuned to similarities between India and Mexico, especially their histories of goddess worship and high rates of violence against women.

“In 2014 we did a work called The Two Madonnas ... Then again in 2019 in Kolkata for the Magdalena Project, which was very special for me because it was my birth town and I was doing something subversive. It was received well. It was so gratifying, loads of Indian women coming up and thanking us. Everything was done with framing, costumes, gesture.”

It’s not all serious. Rakini, like her former mentor Gomez-Peña, isn’t above a bit of ironic self-aggrandisement. Similar to the Kali series was The Female Pope, performed in Sweden, Brooklyn and at Carriageworks in Sydney during the 2010s. Rakini launches into a story in her sculpted Anglo–Indian tones.

“In Sweden, nobody knew me and I had the most fabulous reactions. I was just seated and people came. I had all this stuff, someone made me a black leather mitre which weighed a ton. I was going to do the pièta, so I needed a Jesus. The curator said, ‘Well, there’s this Japanese artist arriving later today, he’s really into pain.’ I said, ‘Fantastic, give him to me.’ He arrived complaining he had jet lag and it was really cold. So I gave him this little loincloth and said, ‘Go and lie there, at my feet.’ And he did! Anyway, it got televised and photographed, it was an experiment that just went crazy.”

Sarah Miller, former professor of performance at Wollongong University and director of Performance Space, points out Rakini is not only “impeccably trained, highly self-reflexive and hard-working … she is also incredibly funny”.

Imagery of The Female Pope will be used in projections for Inhabiting Erasures, as well as six-metre backdrops from 1991. Rakini will also draw on her long, fruitful collaborations with sound artists and composers. The opening night performance will feature Cat Hope, with whom she first worked decades ago; the closing night Liberty Kerr, known for her work with drumming video artist Tina Havelock Stevens.

Most of the work was created in 2020 when Rakini was in residence at the Rex Cramphorn Studio, as well as in this Marrickville house during lockdown. She talks of her horror at the escalation of domestic abuse in the confined, anguished conditions the pandemic forced upon people worldwide. I can tell she had a harrowing 2020, due more to this research than the pandemic.

As far back as 30 years ago, when she formed Indian dance troupe Kalika in Perth, Rakini was engaged in critiques of violence against women. Suttee was a performance that considered the eponymous ancient practice of widow burning in Hindu culture: a wife who does not die before her husband is deemed “inauspicious” for failing in her duty of preparing his place in heaven. Suttee continues to this day.

Aspects of the modern world have increased other forms of violence. “Female infanticide has escalated with ultrasound,” she says. “Also, the dowry system makes women cost a lot. Poor people can’t afford to dowry their daughters off so they give them away.” Then there is the rise of religious fundamentalism, which has resulted in the resurrection of misogynist laws and attitudes.

The figures are shocking. Globally, an estimated 137 women are killed by their partner or a family member every day. According to data collected by the United Nations, the number of female victims of violence worldwide in the past 12 months alone runs into millions. The figures are higher for marginalised groups such as LGBTQIA+ people.

Other forms of erasure are relevant. When I ask Rakini about Australian responses to her work, she writes that she has had more support overseas. Have Australian responses changed?

“It has been very slow, and at times I am still appalled at the lack of interest or knowledge the general public have of South-Asian culture,” she says. “But on the positive side, there is a new generation of fierce young artists who take a much more proactive approach, coupled with the internet, that has bridged many communities.”

One of these is 33-year-old Shahmen Suku, whose alter ego drag artist Radha La Bia is known for her performative cooking classes. It was Suku/La Bia who curated Rakini for their MCA Artbar, in a night of South-Asian artists for “Radha’s House Party”.

“She’s amazing!” Suku gushes, agreeing that Rakini is a trailblazer. Suku identifies with her meld of the ancient and contemporary, citing the struggle second-generation South Asians still have to reconcile their two cultures. “They’re in constant conflict but also fail to realise this is not a new concept and there have been artists like Rakini who have been doing this for decades. This is where I see the importance of her presence. Also, her work can be quite dark at times, and why shouldn’t that be considered entertainment as well as art?”

The blind spot in regard to older women, curatorial as well as societal, combined with performance art’s erstwhile marginal status, has kept Rakini out of major institutions. The gap between grants was a mammoth 16 years but she persisted, finally receiving Create NSW support for Inhabiting Erasures.

Her artist statement is too fine to be paraphrased. As acutely as she fears ageing, Rakini is determined to make work, “be it on paper, empty studios, site-specific locations, or the stage. By presenting my ‘evolving’ body as the site for my art, through dance or as artefact, it becomes a site of protest in itself. I believe strongly that the flame of creative vitality burns brighter than ever as one grows older, and though the flesh is vulnerable to the ravages of time, it is in our power to extinguish that flame or allow ourselves to be consumed by it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Real presences ".

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Fiona Kelly McGregor is the author of seven books.