Interview with Shahmen Suku


Shahmen Suku is a performance artist born in Singapore and based in Sydney who explores ideas of racial and cultural identity, religion, gender, the home and the kitchen, food and storytelling in his performances. As his alter ego Radha, he has also hosted many events and parties in Sydney and has become an important figure in the Queer and alternative communities. Radha has presented works for Liveworks at Performance Space, Liquid Architecture, Cement Fondu, appeared in The Set on the ABC as a recurring host in the kitchen. Growing up in a modern matriarchal Indian family in Singapore, Shahmen processes his sense of displacement from home as Radha, the Diva from India. Moving to Australia has given Shahmen multiple perspectives on migration, culture, race, colonisation and gender identity. Some of these issues cannot be discussed openly in Singapore or as himself and finds expression in his alter ego. Radha’s performances create holistic experiences that encompass culinary science and spatial dynamics. Spiced with family stories, Radha’s shows range across pop culture, social media and an understanding of Australia as a foreign body.

Heaps Gay Festival 2015, The Factory Theatre. Image by Satskui Minoda

“Food is how I learnt these stories, so it’s integral to how I share and pass on my stories as well.”

The creation of culinary experiences is central to many of your performances. I think food is a powerful tool for connecting with others, for having conversations. We cook for others as a form of care, or we take sitting at the dinner table as an opportunity to talk about things, whether personal, public or otherwise. Can you speak a bit more about why food is an integral part of your work?

In my family we don’t talk about a lot of things, we don’t necessarily talk about love or share love verbally. The way we share love has always been through food. Mum would always cook special things for me, and that would be her way of expressing love. My aunties, the matriarchs of the family, might not say much, but they will say ‘come over, let me cook for you,’ as a way of showing care and appreciation. It’s also the only time I learn of the stories in my family – by weaseling my way into the kitchen, learning recipes or helping Mum prepare something. I might learn something about my grandmother or grandfather, or one of my uncles. It’s also when my mum is most relaxed. Food is how I learnt these stories, so it’s integral to how I share and pass on my stories as well.

Midnight Masala 2016, Empire Remains Shop, London. Image by Kimi Gill

Stuart Hall mentions in ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’  that culture is something that is always ‘becoming other’, in the sense that culture is always a process of negotiation, or in a state of flux. Does this resonate with your experiences? What does this mean to you in your work?

As a third generation Singaporean-Indian, we have our own unique ways of relating to Indian culture and ‘tradition’ against the backdrop of quite a cosmopolitan cityscape. I use a lot of popular culture references in my work and that’s how I bring my cultural experiences into the present, in a way: Kim Kardashian, whatever might be in the news at the time, grindr references. I try to make sure there are things in there for everyone.

In a performance once I used coconut oil, which has many uses in South-Asian culture, to talk about sex  two things that the audience might not have heard or seen used in the same vein before. People might be at a nightclub, and all of a sudden I will show up in full drag dancing to a Shiva chant, cracking a coconut with milk in it, with everyone around me wearing jockstraps. Talking about sex and sexuality has always been an aspect of Indian and Hindu culture, but in some ways I think we’ve lost the liberty of talking about it openly. In contemporary art, we are constantly finding new ways in which we can incorporate these kinds of discussions about sex and sexuality, which is something I am trying to attach back to my sense of culture and play with a lot as well in my work.

Let’s talk about Radha La Bia herself, your persona. How did she come to be? In what ways has she developed or changed over time?

I used to live in Brisbane, and a friend of mine wanted to try drag in a competition at the Sportsman Hotel. I did it, hated it, shaved every bit of hair on my body and did the whole wig thing, performed a Beyonce number of course. I couldn’t really relate to the performance – why was I lip syncing? It made absolutely no sense for me. A friend opened up an ARI (artist run space) in his lounge room, and had an event where the theme was around food. I was thinking to myself, I’m not an artist, but I can cook, why don’t I do a cooking show in drag and just talk shit? People really enjoyed it and responded well to it, which made me realise it was my thing. Stand up + food and drag, I can combine it into one. It wasn’t the best performance, there were probably a few racial jokes in there that I should never repeat again. Understanding how people view race here in Australia, and Sydney particularly, is very different to how I grew up in Singapore.

I’ve since moved from doing stand up gigs to doing deeper research in my work. I performed ‘The Divine Game’ at Day for Night, based on the 60’s Tamil epic movie of the same name, that has been remade a few times but retold differently each time. One movie might take a male god as its focus, whereas a different remake will take the female goddess as its powerful central protagonist. I’ve used that story to talk about my family unit, and also to talk about the complicated origins of Hinduism, and its’ undercurrent of quite nationalist rhetoric in the present day. Mixing fiction and non-fiction, fact and non-fact plays a bigger role in my work these days.

“It’s important for me to archive these histories, oral histories. I don’t write them down, but I do perform them, to try and spread the stories so they can carry on.”

The Divine Game 2017, Underbelly Arts Festival. Image by Tim Da Rin

I didn’t want to use religion in my work for a long time, because I viewed it as sacred, but now I am realising it is part of my story, part of my upbringing, so why not bring it in and make it a bit less serious and more playful. I can be a drag queen and a Hindu at the same time. My work always comes back to my family though. In ‘Wedding Banquet’, I talk about my sister’s wedding, and all of the closeted gay uncles in the family. Then in ‘Midnight Masala’ based on the history of Little India in Singapore, I pickle limes, using pickling (or preserving) as a form of archiving.

There’s always this worry of losing personal history if we don’t talk about it, to remember where my grandfather came from, my immediate family’s upbringing. If no-one records any of this, I’m concerned that the stories die when people pass away. It’s important for me to archive these histories, oral histories. I don’t write them down, but I do perform them, to try and spread the stories so they can carry on.

Your curation of the upcoming MCA Artbar (part of Vivid 2019) is perhaps one of your most ambitious projects to date. What thoughts or concepts went into developing this project?

When I was approached to curate this show, I decided that I wanted to bring something to Artbar that hadn’t been done before. I’m calling the event ‘Radha’s House Party’, and I want it to have a South Asian and Dravidian focus. A big part of this event for me is community. It’s a house party where all of your family and relatives are there, like those big South Asian events in homes where there are the nieces who sing, cousins who dance, everyone performs. It’s my made up family in Sydney, and Australia.

I’ve loosely curated Vivid Artbar around food, sex and religion, and even if I haven’t openly voiced this to the artists, they know that it’s Radha, so these themes are assumed. I want this event to be intergenerational as well, because I think we sometimes lose that important element with certain ways of curating exhibitions and events by young people for ‘cool kids’. Sometimes we think we are creating something ‘new’, when there is an older generation of artists who have been doing this for many years.

I ask myself when I do projects like this: who is my audience, and who am I making this for? Art should be for everyone, so how do I reach a larger audience? I want this event to be more accessible for communities and performers who haven’t been in a gallery context before. I’ve told all of the performers and artists to bring their families with them. We’re all really excited to be a part of this.

Is collaboration an important aspect of your work as an artist?

I’ve been working solo for a while now, but am loosening up quite a bit and opening myself up to collaboration. I’ve been working a lot with Jhassic, a DJ and music producer, and slam poet Srisha Sritharan , who will be rapping at MCA Artbar. We’re all going to perform together like we did at Secret Garden Festival, where Jhassic really got the crowd going with Kanye West, while I was doing my drag ritual stuff and setting coconuts on fire, and Srisha comes in (aka ATMAVICHARA), rapping like crazy. We brought three worlds together, which no one would have thought could work together. We’re mixing a lot of old Tamil songs and Indian trap music, and sharing music with each other.

I’ve also been meeting with all of the Artbar artists one-on-one to share our visions, so in a way the whole thing is a very collaborative project.

Secret Garden Festival 2019. Image by Tim Da Rin

What music are you currently listening to?

I’ve recently discovered Idris Elba’s rap, and DJ sets. I listen to a lot of Indian trance and trap remixes. I always go back to 80’s Tamil music when Tamil cinema was really amazing, and the songs have quite a poetic, romantic quality. I also really love Sister Deborah, and Yemi Alade at the moment.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

It’s always been a dream of mine to have my own cooking show, so I’m hoping to start making cooking videos on YouTube, maybe even a line of food products, because the art world doesn’t always feel so sustainable. I wanna get my pickles on the shelves at Woolworths, that’s what I wanna do.

Tanushri Saha

Author: Tanushri Saha

Tanushri Saha is a writer and visual artist based in Sydney. Her practice explores science fiction, futurism, ecologies, and questions of decolonisation. Tanushri holds a Bachelor of Arts in History and Cultural Studies, and is currently undertaking a Master of Design at the University of Sydney. Her work has appeared in Pencilled In, Hermes, Melbourne Art Week, Verge Gallery, and Women of Color in Solidarity (NY).

Your thoughts?