bhenji ra is the sydney trans icon dismembering culture and gender through art

The artists speaks to i-D about identity, culture, getting what you deserve, and life under an Aquarius moon.

by Jonno Revanche
16 December 2015, 1:30am

Photo by Jonno Revanche

Brimming with kindness, humour, confidence, and intelligence, dancer and visual artist Bhenji Ra is a living byproduct of internet sub-culture. Their constantly evolving work spans disciplines, while a focus on Indigenous representation and queer people of colour (QPOC) has seen them established as a trans icon and central figure in in the Sydney queer scene.

Recently, Bhenji's resume—that includes stints at the Underbelly Arts Festival in Sydney and GOMA—has attracted global attention. They've performed alongside Mykki Blanco, Justin Shoulder, Cakes Da Killa, and count Junglepussy as a fan.

Bhenji's life—alongside their Instagram—feels like a warm blooded, transgressive act against Australia's gender binaries and notions of acceptability. Personally, being in the audience for one of Bhenji's club performances, discovering their visual work, and witnessing their radical trans/filipino pride signalled a shift in my own self-perception. i-D recently spoke to Bhenji about this cacophony of projects and becoming a symbol in the art world.

Let's start at the beginning, how do you introduce yourself?
Hi. I'm Bhenji, I currently work under the title of Bhenji-Ra and I'm a performance and interdisciplinary artist living in Sydney. I'm very much gender fluid, with no set gender or prescription to western gender systems. I prefer to be gender neutral by being called they.

While working on this piece I found I battled to describe your style, it really moves far beyond dance. What do you call it?
My work changes rapidly, I think it has to do with me having an Aquarius moon or something. I also have lots of platforms and mediums that I work within daily—it's hard to talk about my work when people ask.

I also use they, and have become increasingly frustrated by people's slowness to come to terms with the concept. But do you feel we have a responsibility to keep educating and explaining these identities?
I don't know about responsibility but I think it is really important to fight for your identity no matter how much you think you are making someone uncomfortable or awkward. Like, we've been made to feel awkward and uncomfortable our whole lives, it's the least people—especially our loved ones—can do for us.

Speaking about the idea of "uncomfortable", that related back to your work, especially what I've seen of your club performances. They're consciously unapologetic in their mix of boldness and emotional exposure in the best way possible. When I first saw the one, I found it simultaneously confronting and uplifting. I think people need to be challenged.
I just make what I want to see. If I want to see the Filipino community from my rural township become mini celebs overnight, then yeah, I'm going to make that happen. If I want to create a martial art form that speaks to trans people then of course, it makes sense to do that. Everything I do is out of desire, function, and necessity. It also comes from me, my blood, my body, my experiences.

Justin Shoulder & Bhenji Ra, Deep Alamat, 2014 from Artbank on Vimeo.

You've become a sort of poster child for a lot of Sydney institutions and art organisations lately. Off the top of my head there's the Opera House representation as well as House of Mince. Is it validating to know that you're representing a huge subset of people that would never be prioritised in these circles?
Yeah it's nice, but it's also just what should happen. I'm lucky to have friends who work within these institutions who can open these windows of opportunity and ultimately provide a platform for my work to be seen. I always forget that I live in a little QPOC (queer person of colour) bubble and that being represented on a large public scale is actually really important.

Do you ever feel alone or isolated as someone who is so bold and sure of your identity?
I feel like my voice is very distinct but I'm always trying to find kindred spirits to connect with. I feel like I have a smallish online community of indigenous trans people and QPOCs on my social media who express the same concerns and feelings towards life under the coloniser. When I'm in Sydney I'm forever trying to bridge together various communities that I belong to.


Text and photography Jonno Revanche
Styling Kurt Johnson
Photography assistant Mia Van Den Bos
Make up Isobel Claire Birchall

visual art
bhenji ra
queer people of colour