The modern set-up of our life is dependant on the celebrity: stand-ins for our own tastes, values, and politics. Maybe this person used to be someone else, a community figure, our pastor, a parent or relative, an elder. Now it’s Instagram influencers, baddies, or a personal favourite: flat tummy tea spokespeople.
Bhenji Ra, a performer, dancer, and multi-disciplinary artist and cultural instigator is aware of expectations to become an online glamazon and perform a hyper-contemporary version of herself (and identity) for the world—or, as the kids say, to go off on IG. But Bhenji refuses to be the girl the algorithm favours—mostly, she chooses to spread the love, facilitate connections, document the occasional spiral with total grace, and share the microphone with her communities. In particular, the vogue contingent House of Slé, a tightknit cluster of friends which has grown over the last year to upward of 20 people.
These days, you can find the House of Slé officiating local vogue balls across Sydney’s western suburbs. For the unitiated, vouge takes queues from classic modes of filmic glamour and draws from a long-standing tradition in NYC that has since graduated to little pockets of QTPOC across the world, disrupting Eurocentric ideas of traditional dance and competition. Vogueing is, in a sense, a kind of antidote to the depiction of victimhood commonly projected onto trans women of colour and gender diverse people in our cultural imagination—instead of a static, vulnerable image, we witness the contours of rapidly shifting bodies, muscularity, tone, proficiency, and fast-moving dance, which emboldens the audience as much as the performer.
The House of Slé further recontexualise the “ball” to fit in a long tradition of South-Pacific pageantry and contemporary performance practices, at a Slé ball, the audience is engaged beyond anything you’d witness in a theatre, mausoleum or sports arena. The finery is always high concept, the production filled with panache, and sparkle down to every last detail—all while maintaining a DIY ethos.
Their largest ball to date, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and Red Bull Music’s Sissy Ball, was a sellout showcase of Pasifika/Indigenous/QTPOC talent, taking home the FBi SMAC award for 2018’s Best Arts Program. I’m eager to hear how Bhenji is responding to the new responsibilities, building a framework for the future and carrying the weight of her communities expectations—although I should already know, she’s a Virgo!
Let’s start off by talking about the idea of the invitation. Because the way I see it is: a lot of cultural gatekeepers are very good at making it seem like they don’t have a lot of power when they hold the keys to facilitate quite a bit of transformative action, but it still feels like the same people get the microphone. How do we point back at that instead of shouldering the responsibility ourselves?
Yeah, of course. As a trans or GNC or gender diverse person, the invitation is all wrapped up in these conditions, like ‘Am I gonna be safe? Will I be compromised?’ Sometimes it’s the simplest thing that will indicate that, and make me think ‘Can I step out right now? Will I be guaranteed my safety in a space where there isn’t a high percentage of trans people?’ Stepping out is so incredibly alienated sometimes. You don’t have a historical context to cleanly slot into. When I started to step out I obviously wasn’t thinking about being anyone for anything, it was like Munroe Bergdorf said the other day: “I was an activist by accident.” When there’s zero representation in Australia, as soon as someone comes out and starts to be that, it’s like there’s all eyes on them. ‘Finally we can tick a box, have a conversation about this.’ I’ve been very aware that sometimes that’s me. I step around that very carefully because it’s just not my role in the world.
Why can’t we have one of those Hollywood Reporter style roundtables with Glenn Close and Lady Gaga but with all trans people, filmed in hi-def? Is that not what the girls need?
For sure! I do feel confident in myself to speak on certain things, and sometimes there’s a famine of trans women of colour speaking on things, simply because the invitation has never been there for us.
Travis Alabanza retweeted this the other day: “visibility doesn’t mean shit when the gaze isn’t ethical.” To me, a lot of that concerns the dynamic at play when someone is looking upon you… and anyone seen as non-white or GNC are deemed with suspicion by middlebrow society – the generosity and space needed for a good faith dialogue often isn’t there.
It’s tricky. You know, a few times when I’ve been asked to do things it’s wasn’t the platform or subject I wanna speak on. I wanna make my own platform, where I make the rules, where there’s a community conversation—not a conversation between me and someone who has a social-political-cultural context that makes me totally othered. I got asked to be on a morning show and like… that’s just not it right now. [People in] media think: “People need to have empathy!” But the way people generate empathy through media is so manipulative, I don’t think it creates the authentic, empathising, or humanising connection that they assume it does. There’s no mutuality. It keeps us othered, it’s a sort of victimhood. So like, how do we create this world where there is empathy in other ways? Because this manipulative stuff slowly fatigues people and becomes poverty porn.
How do you think the families that you’re a part of use Sissy Ball as a way to move beyond that? How do you establish yourselves as artists individually and collectively? In the last year there’ve been members like Jamaica, who’ve been able to sustain a practice for themselves in a way that might not have been possible in the past.
Everyone’s just slowly coming up, and what’s special about us is that all of us have an individual practice of some sort. We’re all really our own mothers and fathers and I’m starting to feel like this is a group of leaders who have their own children attached to them now.
Goodbye! But also, there was so much shame years ago when we stepped out. A lot of social anxiety and insecurity about being in white spaces, being in metro-normative spaces that were outside the inner city. There’s a huge distance there, even socially. One of the girls was saying “Oh I love that we’re always in Newtown now! It would have been so crazy for us to hang out here before.”
It seems like such a small thing to other people, but it’s really not at all.
There is such a big distance between worlds in Sydney, and so many different worlds that exist beyond the periphery. Unfortunately, what happens in Sydney gets centered around this metro-centric, heteronormative, very mediocre party thing that has historically set up the walls. It’s hard to break down those walls.
A lot of it feels very safe and apolitical and dare I say… quirky and Gorman-esque? I mean that sounds bitchy. But it’s that thing now where the queer movements have been totally gentrified and focused more on aesthetics, passing trends, moments of intrigue. It’s all about individual branding rather than building history, community or any significant form of connection.
And I just don’t have it in me to be that consumable, I feel like I’m quite… slippery. It would give so many people joy if I stepped up and became this real consumable image that I dedicated myself to, running my social media that way, creating this very curated life. My Instagram says “less curation more embodiment!”, I’ve never been like that! I’ve always been a messy girl! Too many intersections, even in like, art practice, not just identities. What does it mean to me as a person with a movement based practice who like… still wants to be in the studio all day? I wish I could get to a point where my messiness was somehow consumable, or that became its own thing. You have to relentlessly fight for that and have such conviction I think.
I was thinking of when you were performing last year at the last Sissy Ball, you had this amazing control over your performance, but also over other performances; you were MCing and guiding participants and handling the categories and communicating with your peers on stage. You were able to cite the radical histories behind ballroom and understood when to call upon the viewer to engage when some education was in order. You spoke back to the more mainstream gay, Oxford Street crowd who [I think] were so ready to see it as a passing moment of entertainment.
Which is sometimes the mood for people who are trying to consume this. There’s a certain type of labour that goes into creating how people consume what you’re doing, and how you consume culture, and the protocol that it takes for an audience member to understand what their role as a participant is. So you actually have to teach people how to actively engage in a ball and be there for the girls. You go there for the girls, you turn up for the girls. In the ballroom communities that I come from, there’s such joy for that.
I really feel that, even coming to your vogue classes, when people were all ad-libbing and roaring for each other as they were mucking around and vogue-ing at the end. There’s almost some kind of justice in it.
There’s almost a little bit of ‘reclaiming my time.’ And there’s a joy in seeing that happen and experiencing that. It actually takes a little bit of teaching to an Australian audience, which is predominantly gay, cis…
—which, I feel, is so rooted in this settler mentality, which itself is rooted in Britishness: quite orderly and dry. I think expressiveness and movement are so needed. It humanises people, connects them to their body and gives them agency.
Movement is the ultimate. It refuses this idea of the still image. There’s so much at risk as well: there’s so much that’s going on the floor, there’s so much which is coming from a historical tradition, why these girls are there for that too. Sometimes balls go for a long time. That’s also what I mean in terms of teaching how to watch it. It’s durational, you have to really sit through it sometimes.
I was thinking that at one of the last balls: as an audience member you really have to be on the whole time. I mean, I feel tired watching other people sometimes. Why do I feel that, is it because I’m just not used to being in my body?
For sure. It’s hard because I sometimes think… I’m conscious of what it means if I were to not be here, would that space still be there for the girls? It’s very historical in the sense that a space has been made for the first time for girls like us.
There’s not really much else in Sydney that feels legitimately momentous in that way.
And I think there’s real importance in centring trans women of colour in a space—when you put them at the top of your priorities and when it’s run by them—suddenly that has a ripple effect in terms of what that greater space looks like. Everything kind of just folds beautifully towards itself. Because the core is the most marginalised person, the ones who are calling the shots, who are, ultimately, being the most celebrated.