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The Big Flower Fight star Ryan Lanji: 'I always represent the underdog'

Ryan Lanji grabbed fans of The Big Flower Fight with his huge floral dinosaur. It was an "exercise in visibility and representation" says the guerrilla curator.

“This portrait is really important to me,” says Ryan Lanji, the guerrilla club promoter, curator and surprise florist extraordinaire. “It’s the last picture that anyone took of me before I embarked on The Big Flower Fight.

“I remember talking to the Connor Brothers. They were like, ‘You’ll probably win’, and I was like, ‘OK, I will’.”

As will be known by viewers of Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight – a Vic Reeves-fronted, floral take on The Great British Bake Off – Lanji did indeed go on to triumph in 2020, alongside his then-partner Andrew Whittle. Underdogs with little knowledge of the limitations of their materials, Lanji and Whittle turned their naïveté into a strength, letting imagination run wild. A blooming great big dinosaur, a Yayoi Kusama-inflected infinity mirror of foliage, and a Tim Burton-esque take on Hansel and Gretel all featured in their lockdown-cheering run to victory.

“I was blessed to have been featured in that extreme creative competition during the pandemic,” says Lanji, who is speaking to The Big Issue on a brief break from his latest job, “filming a big Pride activation for a beauty brand”.

“I had no experience in floristry. But it’s an exercise in visibility and representation. The stamina I had, the intensity I had on that show came from a place of always having to hustle and always having to run to the finish line, just to be valid; just to be allowed.”

The Big Flower Fight introduced Lanji to millions of new fans internationally, but he’s been hustling his way to the forefront of the art and clubbing worlds since he arrived in London a decade ago.

I got beaten up by five people in London because of how I lookedRyan Lanji

In his early 20s, Lanji was taking classes at film school in his native Vancouver. “I dropped out because of my queerness,” he says. “And growing up in a [South Asian] cultural family. They didn’t necessarily say that I had to leave the house or leave school, but I felt like it was a conditional transaction.

“I understand why, because I love my parents. I just had all these aspirations. I didn’t know where I belonged.”

On arrival in the UK, Lanji quickly found a job at a pizza place. But, after his first night’s work, a horrific experience changed his life for ever.

“I got beaten up by five people in London,” he remembers, “because of how I looked.”

The next day, he quit his job at the pizza place and found an internship at an art gallery. “People have near-death moments that really change their path. That moment stepped me into my truth and moved me into my power.”

Within a few months, he had curated Nailphilia – the first exhibition to highlight nail art as a form of contemporary sculpture. Featuring nails worn by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, it put Lanji on the map. A major exhibition for Revlon followed, as well as shows with young designers.

“I’d do a show and then I would hustle, do a show and then hustle. I use social media to keep the rent paid,” says Lanji. “But I only work with people I love. I always try to represent the underdog.”

This same instinct led Lanji to found Hungama – “East London’s Gay Bollywood Hip-Hop Night”. Again, operating on the cutting edge, Lanji assembled a rare space to champion queer South Asians.

“What does the future of diversity look like? For me, it’s celebrating everything,” he explains. “So I needed to create a space where we could heal, mourn and meet, but then I also needed to create a space for other people to come and prioritise us.

“We want you here. We just don’t want to be your accessory.”

This article is from the exclusive Connor Brothers takeover of The Big Issue, which is out now. Get the special edition, full of custom artwork and sure to be a collector’s item, from your local vendor or from The Big Issue Shop.

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