An aptitude for the arts
Thankfully, the major setback didn’t deter her. It only fuelled her passion for the arts. She always had a knack for drawing from a very young age, encouraged by her mum. “She would sign me up for competitions at community centres,” she says. “Art is my fantasy and reality. It is my way of expression but to also blow off steam and quieten down.”
But her interest in the arts wasn’t limited to beautiful paintings and sculptures. In secondary school, she played the erhu (Chinese violin) in the Chinese orchestra. However, she recalls feeling connected to the guzheng (Chinese zither).
“I never knew how it (the guzheng) would change my life. I started playing it even though I wasn’t allocated to it. In my breaks, I would play with other guzheng players.”
But, the teacher in charge didn’t take it too well. She was reprimanded for playing the guzheng and was told it would make her soft and leave her unable to play the erhu. The incident left an impression on her. “Where is this expectation coming from? I was so embarrassed,” she laments.
After losing her scholarship, she found a gig at The Fun Stage, a now-defunct theatre production company. “It was a very queer theatre company that did very queer works,” she says. She went on to be part of school shows and workshops, mentioning with pride that, in a way, she was still part of the education system.
She worked mostly behind the scenes as a stage manager until she was asked to be in the limelight for the production of Fight Club: A Chorus. “I was already out and I’d wear heels and shorts — very rabak (a colloquial term in Malay for wild),” she laughs. That marked the beginning of her venture into performative art as Marla Bendini.
Making her dreams come true
At the back of her mind, her goal to pursue a university degree hadn’t changed. But, going to Lasalle or NAFA was out of the question. “I didn’t have the money and I thought it was a privileged thing,” she said. “I wanted to get into a uni uni; it was part of the Singaporean dream.”
When she heard Nanyang Technological University was building a school of Art, Design and Media, she was dead set on enrolling. She applied, got in and studied interactive media.
Like any new student, she was anxious. It wasn’t just about stepping into a new environment. In her personal life, she was navigating uncharted waters in the early stages of transition. Her worst fear was others telling her to dress as a boy. She wanted people to accept her as Marla.
“To my knowledge, I was the only female-presenting trans student there,” she recalls. “I hadn’t changed my name or gone through any gender affirmation surgery. I made it a point to make sure I passed [off] as a woman every day.”
She took a bank loan and applied for financial assistance schemes to put herself through university. On the side, she was an aerialist, a pole dancer and a drag queen.
Before graduation, she became the resident drag queen for (now-defunct nightclub) The Butter Factory, Marla reveals. By the time she graduated, she was already a practising artist showing her work, and she continued supporting herself after university to pay off her loans.
The painter behind the paintings
Feminine energy and the divine are some common themes anchored in her art. “With drag [performances], you bring fantasy to reality and in my paintings, I bring out my inner reality,” she explains. Her artwork is a reflection of her lived experience, and the themes are telling.
“I see art-making as going into the unknown,” she says. Her works are also a way of finding herself and making sense of her feelings. “To find connection, meaning, support and purpose.”
The painting, Pillowtalk/It Is Safe To Look Within (pictured above), is a tender, personal story — a private moment of Marla illustrated beautifully on a canvas. At first glance, I saw a woman looking at me. But, as Marla explained the creative process, I started to observe other things. Like the back of a man hugging the woman, a candle in the background and cats (which she used to own in real life).
On her art, Marla says: “It always starts off with what I need to do for myself. It’s been so lovely to make a living from it. It’s [a] healing process and helps to resolve my past so I can live in the present and look forward to my future.”
My Dark Mother is a haunting portrait depicting a faceless woman juggling an orange, a pear and an apple (which signifies “the Bible, the forbidden fruit, being cast [out] and shame”). The painting “wants me to look at the things I’m juggling, what I’m holding too tightly, what I’m afraid to let go and how I can have everything and nothing at the same time,” she says.
It’s also a nod to her multi-religious background and spiritual awareness. “I grew up Buddhist, my father was Christian and converted to Taoism, my mum remarried a Hindu, and when I was going through depression, I [pivoted] to Islam,” she shares.
On the trans community and her future
Marla speaks with pride about being part of the local trans community. “It’s very diverse, ever-growing and ever-changing. We’re made up of very strong, beautiful and vulnerable individuals. I can’t speak for everyone, but every community comes from a certain history of trauma.”
My Sisters Have Always Taught Me And Reminded Me What I Already Know, 2021. Photography: Venkat Gunasellan
To people who have misconceptions and prejudice about her community, she has only one thing to say. “We’re very brave, but sometimes we’re not. That’s why we need allies and advocates. Our voices don’t get into certain rooms and spaces, and we need them to amplify our voices.”
As for the future, she’s learning to create art that takes care of her and hopes it holds space for others. “I hope in the process we learn to see love and kindness in one another,” she says.
With all the challenges she faced, I can’t help but ask what’s been most rewarding about her journey as an artist. After a contemplative silence, she points to herself, misty-eyed, and says, “this is the reward”.