“Art is my fantasy and reality. It’s my way of expression but to also blow off steam and quieten down.”
Emotive, brooding and personal. These are just some of the words that came to mind when I first saw Marla Bendini’s artwork online. But her personality is a complete 180, despite the struggles she experienced in her life. The 35-year-old is funny and vivacious. To be completely honest, it felt like I was talking to a longtime friend when I met her at Cuturi Gallery where her work was part of the exhibition, You Can Tell Me.
Being a painter is just one part of her life. She’s a pole dancer, a guzheng player, a theatre performer and a proud transgender woman. In a personal and raw conversation, she shares with me her joy, struggles, accomplishments and love for the arts.
Meet Marla Bendini
Marla was the middle child in a Buddhist family. Unlike a typical nucleus family, the children were brought up by their mother and grandmother. Their father wasn’t really present, having spent time in and out of prison for drug-related offences.
When speaking about her late dad, Marla’s empathy shines through. Her first exhibition in Singapore, titled Conversations Between Father and Son, was in honour of him. “My father was a wonderful, lovely man but he had problems he couldn’t conquer,” she says.
Life wasn’t a bed of roses, but she would follow her mum to religious group sessions where she was exposed to people from all walks of life. “I was very privileged to be part of many conversations, discussions and personal sharings of people going through difficulties in their life,” she says. “It wasn’t only about religion, but it also involved cheering one another on and helping others.”
Amidst all this in the background, she struggled with who she was as a person. She was aware she was different. “I say this a lot. I feel like I’ve known shame and guilt way earlier. It was one of my first memories,” she recounts her journey to self-identity.
How she chose her name
The journey to becoming Marla Bendini wasn’t linear. She grew up identifying as queer. “I am very gay, I still am,” she chuckles. The transition to Marla Bendini began in 2007 when she was in a theatre production based on the cult movie Fight Club. A big part of the production dealt with civil obedience, and the character Marla Singer paralleled her life in a way.
“Everyone thinks Marla (the character) doesn’t give a **** and I don’t,” she says. She kept her birth name as her last name and took on Marla as her first. “Sometimes the name chooses you, and sometimes you choose the name.”
On the road to becoming a new person, she was blessed to have a supportive family. “They’ve never really stopped me from doing anything and in a way, I guess they’ve always known,” she says.
But was there a concern of what others would think? To that, she offers a different train of thought. Instead of others’ opinions, it should be about what the person in question is thinking or feeling. “Coming out and changing is a very scary process,” she shares.
Over the course of our conversation, I saw Marla slowly letting her guard down and opening up about her struggles. She acknowledges she didn’t have an entirely tough childhood, but she also learned not to downplay the challenges she faced.
At 17, she already knew what she wanted to do with her life. Her goal was to pursue the arts in university. “I really wanted to be an art teacher, like many of the wonderful art teachers I’ve had,” she says. So, after junior college, she decided to take the latter route and applied for a teaching scholarship – she figured that would cover her tuition fees and she’d have a career waiting for her.
She got the scholarship and was all set. But first, she had to serve National Service, mandatory for all Singaporean males. That’s when she contemplated declaring her sexual orientation. After receiving assurance that she would not face any discrimination during her time in the military and after, and for the sake of her mental health, she came out of the closet.
Upon completing her conscription, she did a routine full-body health check as part of the university admission. However, her PES status (a grading system based on your medical condition in the military) came into question and she mentioned that she had declared her sexual orientation. This led to a psych consult which deemed her medically unfit.
Just like that, she lost her scholarship. “It was one of the most awful things that happened to me. I was on scholarships and bursaries all my life. I wanted to be of service. I wanted to give back what I was given and I wasn’t allowed to. I was so broken.”
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.”
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”.