(m)others’ work: praise prose for Rajni Perera’s mythic humanoids
Negarra A. Kudumu October 2, 2018
Certain ancient peoples believed their original ancestor was perfect, neither male nor female: humanoid. Depending on the myth, you may recognize it as the ever elusive half-fish half-human, luring mindless onlookers into the sea. Other times, it is a vulture perched in a tree, quietly waiting for the lions to take what they will of the carcass so that it can go to work on the innards. Or, perhaps, it is one of the many versions of Kali who with her multiple arms remind us that though it is with our flesh and bone that we arrive to new lands, it is via our spirit that we will endure and, hopefully, transcend.
The original ancestor, the (m)other, was an entity so pure and unsullied that it was deemed sublime. Something so perfect as this humanoid creature was unable survive in its natural state, and so it split. First, into two, and then those two produced a third, and so on and so forth until the earth was populated. These repeated acts of splitting caused a void. It is the kind of separation humans feel until this day when they are forcibly removed from that which has birthed them. It is a reminder of the existential void that results in an epic aloneness. It is the feeling infants experience upon exiting the womb made manifest by their screeching cries. It is the gripping emotion that accompanies losing a parent or child. It is the sentiment that wrenches the heart when forced to leave the lands of our birth. It is a pain of the bone and of the skin and though we may heal, we will never forget. Imagine, then, the life of the third culture person. Needing to, or being forced to, separate from their home: the first culture; coming into contact with a new culture and the invisible sacrifices made in order to assimilate: the culture clash; and finally the result, which is neither where your are from, nor where you live: the third, other culture.
To survive in the third/other culture, you are customarily expected to throw off the trappings of the first one. While you may be able to keep your food, you most certainly are not permitted to keep your myths. All those incredible stories of how your people arrived to their homeland, the terrific tales of transcendence and elevation of those humanoid beings from which your ancestors descended, you may not keep those. But upon your arrival, as a third culture person, to a third space, you discover amongst the layers of forcibly imposed -isms and -archies, pre-existing mythologies, spoken in other tongues and wearing their unique vestments, about beings that urge you to recall your original humanoid ancestor. Like your (m)other was to your land, their (m)other is indigenous to this one and like you, it’s descendants still walk the earth and their (m)other still recognizes their children. The original ancestor, the stuff of millenia old myths, illuminating their children’s paths and guiding their descendants to the third place, have not been forgotten. These are the (m)others, the original humanoid that birthed and never abandoned their children and are the driving force for their children’s survival, perpetuity, insight, and wisdom.
To properly ingest Rajni Perera’s (m)otherworld, one must accept, if not become accustomed to, the decadence that precedes and necessitates destruction. Perera captures that decadence ornately through the application of her research into art deco. She dresses the (m)others with elaborate and exuberant designs as armour for their battles, but also as a message to the opposition: “we intend to bring to bare a reckoning that will eventually rebalance and reharmonize this third space our children now inhabit. What was once excess and grotesque excess, will eventually be no more and we are leading the charge.
But why the suggestion of violence? We forget all too quickly the oppression and aggression lived by third culture people inhabiting third spaces. These are the iron smelted circumstances in which diaspora forms. A constant heating up, combustion, and reshaping of self through time and across multiple places. It is a de(con)struction of the old self where the battleground is often the body, and always the mind and spirit. The old self can not remain when transformation is required to sustain life. It must become something else to survive, and that something else is always preceded by a death. In constructing the new self - not quite what it originally was, but also not entirely divorced - there is the opportunity to build anew. Perera’s life reflects comparable realities. Perera’s (m)others do not derive their strategies from feeling or figments of imagination, but rather belief resultant from the lived experiences of their children. Humans, particularly third culture people, often find themselves having to remake, reshape, destroy, deconstruct, and reconstruct, so much so that the original being becomes an obscured glimmer of a past that one can no longer be sure even existed. The persistence of the (m)other, however, reminds us that we, too, deserve to persevere. Deep inside the mind, sewn up in our soul, and pumped through our blood by our hearts is the memory of that original ancestor that destroyed its perfect self, so that we could be born. This same ancestor will, when it sees fit, destroy the third space, so that it’s children may thrive and perpetuate the (m)other’s lineage.
As channel and an incarnate (m)other form, Perera proffers a visual narrative that advances this progression, and the transformation is palpably felt. Perera has transitioned from salient historical analyses around Black and Brown female bodies, as in “Afrika Galaktika” to almost exclusively spiritual considerations in this new series. If “Afrika Galaktika” helped us to understand, and figuratively restore, Black and Brown women to their rightful places in the global historic record, this new series reaches back to the origins of the universe to remember our first progenitor and consider how those memories continue to shape and propel us in the sundry third cultures and third spaces we now call home. With her ongoing interest in marginalised people, the immigrant experience, and the aesthetic of science fiction, Perera continues to prioritize fecund and lush forms, that rethink and transcend human conceptions of sex and gender. Be clear, these works do not seek to erase biological, sexual, social realities, rather Perera’s paintings reconnect humanity with it’s mythic, spiritual, otherworldly origins. She has revealed to us our origins - the (m)otherworld - and within it, are the lessons on how to create and sustain life. Among those lessons are the need to restructure our thinking on being. Existence is cyclical, not linear. Death paves the way for life, and then it restarts.
It is in the between spaces, just after death and right before birth, that our mythic (m)other serves us best. It has made plain the lengths to which it will go to elevate its descendants above the marginalisation projected upon them, while at the same time being the first and final arbiter of justice for those who dare bring violence upon its progeny. The (m)other asks us to consider how we will (re)construct diaspora grounded in our foundational myths so that it can be a procreative experience. It suggests we take note of our survival mechanisms in the third culture and third space, as well as the structures that sought to keep us oppressed, so that we can work actively, and in an agentic manner, to construct realities in which we can thrive. If the art deco movement of the pre-WWI period in Europe signalled a desire for modernity, a wish to enjoy the finer things in life, the best that one could afford, Perera’s usage of it evokes a similar motivation on the part of the (m)other: a desire for its descendants to create and live out all of life’s sumptuousness. The myths of time immemorial are adaptable toolkits meant to sustain throughout the ages. We put them down when we think, or when we are told, they are no longer useful. We pick them back up when we need reinforcements.
Perera’s paintings aggregate time tested aesthetics and ancient theurgy filtered through her blood’s memory and lived experience of her contemporary incarnation forming a repository of adaptable technologies and toolkits for use in the now. In the (m)otherworld, we are whole, we are free, we are agentic, and we are able. Over time and through geographies, we can - and will be - all of those things, if we remember the lesson of our mythic (m)other.