MONTREAL — On the very last day of August, Galerie Hugues Charbonneau opened a solo exhibition of new works by Sri Lankan-born artist Rajni Perera created in Montreal, where she had spent the summer. Phylogeny includes three paintings on marbled paper, a small installation, and a life-size sculpture all taking their due space in the gallery.

Rajni Perera has been an international artist resident as part of the Open Access program at the Darling Foundry, where the new studio space allowed her to expand the scale of her paintings, sculptures, and installations. Walking around her studio, one can see how nature and its processes are of great interest and inspiration to the artist. Visitors may notice mushroom growing stations, fake grass being strengthened and bent, adorned with earth, and terracotta pigments that give more insight into the artist’s process. However, upon entering the gallery space, surprise, shock, and shortness of breath are felt — not because this corpus is completely different from her past work, but rather, it is the epic version of what we all lived this summer in Canada and the Northeastern United States: the sun disappearing under clouds of smoke from the forest fires, having to wear masks to breathe, and our minds racing about how to escape natural disasters, if ever it is possible. 

In “A Starry-eyed Subspecies” (2022–23), a child rides a life-sized horse, an adult accompanying them through the treacherous field of high grass. Prepared for what seems to be a trek to a safer place, both subjects have the facial profile of Perera’s “Travellers” (2018–ongoing), “morphologically transformed to embody the landscape.” Walking around them, we feel pulled toward their path, wanting to hide in the field hoping to find some protection.

Rajni Perera, “Lagoon (Phylogeny series)” (2023), acrylic gouache, chalk, charcoal, gel pen, and pencil on hand-marbled paper, 46 x 66 inches

Rajni Perera, “Desert (Phylogeny series)” (2023), acrylic gouache, chalk, charcoal, gel pen, and pencil on hand-marbled paper, 46 x 66 inches
Rajni Perera, “Tundra (Phylogeny series)” (2023), acrylic gouache, chalk, charcoal, gel pen, and pencil on hand-marbled paper, 46 x 66 inches

The artist’s previous paintings on marbled paper depict climate refugees and figures piercing through colorful cyclones; “Lagoon,” “Desert,” and “Tundra” (2023) are still lifes combining animals, plants, and fruit species that do not naturally cohabit. The flora and fauna are forced to collaborate and mutate with leaky petrol containers of fungi growth in order to survive this state of the environment. The world in which they live is not only beautiful but also appealing; these works call upon viewers to realize the fragility behind the remaining beauty of our world and act towards action against the current climate emergency. Finally, by depicting a pheasant lying inanimate under a glass bell, trapped during its own mutation, Perera critiques how institutions, such as natural history museums, use violent methods to educate and archive the natural world.

Rajni Perera, “Still Life – Tropics 3” (2023), polymer clay, dyed pheasant feathers, and glass bell, 16 x 12 x 12 inches

Phylogeny seeks to expand upon discussions of climate destruction and species extinction. All the pieces in the exhibition further realize and resolve the artist’s previous works about climate change, but delve further into themes of immigration and diasporic, social, ideological, spiritual, and cultural movements. Diasporic communities and countries of the Global South are the most affected by catastrophes; this exhibition is a tangible representation of Perera’s concerns and conclusions about what is yet to come, which show us how this science-fiction vision of our world is in fact, our present. 

Phylogeny will continue at Galerie Hugues Charbonneau (372 Rue Sainte-Catherine O space 308, Montréal, QC) through October 14. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

eunice bélidor is a Montreal-based curator, critic, and researcher, specializing in contemporary Haitian art, and interested in fashion design, performance, post-black studies, and feminism. She is the...

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