sydney trans art icon bhenji ra makes the world they want to see

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

by Jonno Revanche
16 December 2015, 6:01pm

Photo by Jonno Revanche

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

Recently, Bhenji's resumé—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 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 signaled 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.

How do you introduce yourself?
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 discomfort, that relates back to your work, especially what I've seen of your club performances. They're unapologetic in their mix of boldness and emotional exposure in the best way possible. When I first saw the one, I found it simultaneously confrontational 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.

You've become a sort of poster child for a lot of Sydney institutions and art organizations 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 prioritized 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 color) 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 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 colonizer. 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
trans culture
art interviews
bhenji ra
queer people of colour