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being in one place with roots in another

osunwunmi at the port city live art weekender

Osunwunmi was in the 2006 RealTime-Inbetween Time Festival workshop and is participating in the Live Art UK initiative, Writing for Live Art.

Roza Ilgen, In My Shoes Roza Ilgen, In My Shoes
photo The Bellasis Bros
IN A RANGE OF EVENTS IN GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS AND CULTURAL CENTRES THROUGHOUT THE UK, 2007 IS BEING COMMEMORATED AS THE 200 YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE ABOLITION OF THE SLAVE TRADE. IN BRISTOL, ARNOLFINI’S RESPONSE TO THE ANNIVERSARY IS DISCURSIVE, RATHER THAN DIRECT, AN EXAMINATION OF THE WEST’S IMPLICATION IN PAST AND CONTEMPORARY PATTERNS OF GLOBAL EXPLOITATION. THE RESULT, PORT CITY, IS A MAJOR CROSS-ARTFORM PROJECT EXPLORING ISSUES OF MIGRATION, TRADE AND CONTEMPORARY SLAVERY, CONCERNED WITH THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE PORT “AS GATEWAY TO A WIDER WORLD…A SYMBOLIC SITE OF CULTURAL EXCHANGE.”

During the Port City Live Art Weekender at Arnolfini, I felt I was truly being engaged as a global citizen, by other global citizens, the artists: an unruly bunch of compromised, ambivalent, intercultural border-crossers. Much of the work was about being in one place with roots in another; translating/making analogies between one situation and another.

brennan, speakman

Both Tim Brennan and Duncan Speakman invoked a sense of moving through the English landscape, crossing long lines of traffic or transport or time, connecting urban to rural, historical to immediate. Brennan, in Performing Northumbria: Empire, mediated his story through deliberately informal, low technology journal keeping and conversation, reading aloud from William Hutton’s early 19th century account of walking Hadrian’s Wall. Assisted by rather gauchely literal props—an actor dressed as a Roman legionary, a large stuffed eagle, a child’s umbrella with mouse ears—he had audience members volunteering for various story-assisting duties, including several people reading extracts from Hutton’s journal in a chorus of overlapping voices.

Speakman, using high-tech recording and mixing in For Every Step You Take, I Take A Thousand, constructed a sound picture of a four-day walk taken through countryside fields into Bristol. Recordings made during that journey—Eastern European farm workers, drinkers in a pub, birds in hedges, an aeroplane passing, traffic—could be listened to either through the studio speakers or, more intensely, through headphones. Speakman mixed and processed the sound live for the audience in a tightly-controlled, evocative work.

curious

In (Be)longing, Curious made play for us with their culturally-determined, authentically inauthentic selves—middle-class English intelligentsia and dislocated Texan—in a delicate, funny piece about longing and identity. Under a glowing neon road sign they addressed the audience, wryly performing failure to be a shit-hot guitarist, or failure to evolve into a higher being through yoga; gently demonstrated the ordinariness of disappointed aspirations. Also showing was a short video piece bu curious in which a group of young women, teenage asylum seekers, were asked about their wishes, hopes and fears. All are likely to be deported once they reach the age of 18, fracturing any sort of continuity in their lives and educations. The link between video and performance was tenuous, but there was an attempt to find common ground between very different women’s lives, and to use the empathy thus poetically engendered as the basis of political awareness.

patel and bradley

In Morris Dancing, a piece about cultural exchange and mirroring, Hetain Patel and Alex Bradley posed adjacent to each other. The skin of each was decorated with henna in patterns derived from William Morris wallpaper, a deliberately hybridised system of signs highlighting a specific moment in their two countries’ long history together, echoing down from the British Raj into the present. Spotlit but separate in a dark space edged by the boundary marking of a strip of wallpaper, each fell into their own rhythm and style of display, relaxation and camouflage, sometimes resting, sometimes seated, sometimes laid against the wallpaper as if to match the pattern on it.

jiva pathipan

Jiva Parthipan's Necessary Journey related the snafu details of an attempted trip to take up an artist’s residency. Seated at a desk, Parthipan (an Asian artist of Sri Lankan heritage) read out official letters he had received from embassies, from the Home Office, from the Arts Council, accumulating the narrative of a completely thwarted journey to Mexico and the US. He would periodically interrupt himself to step to one side of the desk, take some of his clothes off and transform, through mannerisms, into first a dog, then a monkey, and finally, nakedly, into plain humanity, explicitly glossed in the program notes as ‘godhead’, the divine.

That evening, from the same artist, we had a treat in the shape of cabaret from the Al-Quaeda State Ballet, supported by free rum for the audience. It would have been alarming if it hadn’t been so impish—there was jumping and gyrating and a sort of Ninja can-can—clothes came off at some stage—there were black tights involved but those could have been on his head…

harminder singh judge

A godlike man, his bearded face and head painted blue, delivered his urgent, incomprehensible Live Sermon to us, the audience in the dark, from a speaker placed in his mouth. Dressed in a heavy silk skirt, Harminder Singh Judge (whose work is rooted in Hindu and Sikh religion) stood in a wide shallow dish of luminous-looking milk—an effigy, a mouthpiece, a resonating instrument, an avatar. Afterwards an almost invisible trace of his presence was left in the milk, a cloudy blue shadow, an indecipherable portent, a stain from the hem of his skirt.

qasim riza shaheen

In the Light Studio for Qasim Riza Shaheen's Queer Courtesan, I'm instructed to select one of a bunch of old vinyl 45s scattered by a portable record player, one of those 60’s affairs that folds up into a little briefcase. I discard an old pop song and a couple of discs with Urdu titles in Roman script to choose a polka. There’s a booth to the side, fairground colours, a plastic strip curtain in the entrance. I’m ushered inside. I sit down.

I can see a shadowed human figure behind a transparent sheet of plexiglass just in front of me. The light changes and I’m in the dark, the figure spotlit. Dressed in a heavily embroidered silk sari, fanfared by the music, a gaunt, graceful, heavily made up man with a martyred, ecstatic expression begins to primp and preen and touch himself up. It’s suggestive, but tasteful.

I’m just relaxing into it when the light goes off, the music stops, that’s it, that’s my lot. No more technicolor, no more polka, no more tease. It was so well-timed for maximum frustration, I was sure he’d been looking at me (the program notes explain he only sees his own reflection). If I’d been a punter I’d be angrily banging on the glass—but I’d also pay up for another five minutes. Seduction, I guess, has to be about something you can’t get: a satisfied client has no further reason to pay. However I remain unenlightened about the relationship, mentioned in the program notes, between dance and prostitution.

Queer Courtesan manifests too as a video installation in the Dark Gallery with six telly-sized video screens across a wall. In each the artist presents a cameo of a different individual: he impersonates, or represents, one of the Khusra, transgendered sex workers of Lahore he worked with over a period of two years. He wears that person’s clothes (elegant female clothing) against a backdrop of their habitat—their room, or their street corner. One of the rooms is white and shiny, full of electrical equipment and speakers. Another screen shows a couch on the street beside a smoking fire and a tyre swinging from a rope. On another screen the artist sits in an armchair; on another he dances. His costumes are ornate and appear expensive. Looking straight at the camera he strikes attitudes, displays cleavage, plays with a scarf, tears his hair.

A studied invocation of The Virtuous Woman haunts each of these drag acts, trailing implications of forbearance and tenderness and of sacrifices made on the altar of love; meanwhile the tease is tremendously aggressive. It lures you in, so to speak, only to slam the door in your face. One of the cameos actually does this: the artist comes closer and closer to the camera until his face fills the frame; he seems to be just on the verge of being available and, then, bang! The door of the booth slams shut, with you, the client, on the outside, in darkness.

Shaheen impersonates Khusra for the gallery in a way that could not be done without their justified cooperation and trust. The artist places himself as a conduit between the community and the outside world: he does it with beauty and one hell of an attitude. Histrionic and very alluring, at the heart of the work one can discern contempt for the client combined with a yearning for love (maybe clients are to be punished for not being that mythical creature, ‘a real man’). The performances ooze with a defiant sense of entitlement which is linked to the visual portrayal of an ideal of exquisite suffering; and the viewer is uncomfortably cast in the role of john, with all the complicity and self-deception that entails.

Roza Ilgen, In My Shoes Roza Ilgen, In My Shoes
photo The Bellasis Bros
roza ilgen

The foyer at Arnolfini is open all the way up the stairwell to the top floor, all clean white angles around the brushed steel lift-column. A young woman sets up camp here. The niche she creates is untidy, like a market stall. She sits on a low stool, with a dish of viscous white liquid to her left. Two chairs face her, and on her right are big metal basins heaped with dark fuzzy patties of what looks like felt. It’s a terribly organic colonisation of that clean white space.
She’s an attractive, personable presence, facing onlookers with friendly engagement. She could be…Southern European? Latina? South Asian? Her dress contains a nod towards the Orient in that she’s wearing calf-length black jersey shalwar; these look, however, as if they could have come from Gap. In other words, this woman in her untidy territory looks completely cosmopolitan.

On enquiring what she’s doing, you could find yourself seated in front of her with one foot on a low stool placed in a basin of soapy water, while she smears suds over a disc of human hair placed round your foot to make a felt slipper. Similar slippers line the walls of the foyer, all sizes from toddler to galumphing size 12, and in all colours. Of hair, that is, which means in fact brindled. It seems the colour of human hair in Europe, while not absolutely mousy, averages out to brown. When I speculated that in a different country this base colour would be different my assumptions about Scandinavians were quickly corrected! Bin bags full of hair had been collected from 20 different hairdressers in the city and the artist had prepared a supply of felted discs ready for the installation.

Looking at the circles of hair packed into the bowls, you begin to conjure up presences. That person, a rarity, has black hair, and had a complete change of style judging from the quantity cut off; that must be a child with fine blond curls; that person just had a trim; that one is going grey, and oh vivid, there’s a redhead! The spectre of these invisible donors is urgent, and you’d imagine that having your foot swaddled in their off-cuts would be intrusively intimate, but it isn’t. It’s workaday, mundane, like getting a manicure or being measured for a bra. Distancing kicks in, and the process feels like just another variant of the service industry.

Roza Ilgen wrapped my foot in cling film, shaped a circle of human felt around my heel with warm soapy water, moulding more patches onto it to make up a slip-on bootie. She really got into it, kneading and squeezing gently, pouring on more soapy water, covering the toes, building up the throat. When she was satisfied she tackled it with a hair dryer, felting the material more. Then she eased the boot off. It was still damp but held it’s shape, looking sturdy and, already, well-used.

As a black woman I bring such a heavy set of interpretations to the symbolism of hair, I was in danger of missing what was happening here. I wondered about the rows of empty shoes bounding the space, facing the wall, the possible ethnic presences or absences indicated by hair type and colour. I missed the analogy with shoes removed at the door of the mosque—in this case facing a blank wall rather than pointing towards a place of worship.

I nearly missed this beautiful, pragmatic, deeply subversive gesture for what it was: a stubborn exercise in de-mystification and defiance. Ilgren performs a personal service for an audience, engaging them, drawing them in. Meaning streams from her presence in the middle of the activity: she is a Kurdish artist, one of the people without a country, just for now treating the gallery like a cottage industry squat. She takes a material attribute of humans that is, within Islam, culturally loaded and prescribed in a specifically gendered way: with this she makes public, workmanlike, hardy artefacts. Artefacts that are meant to be trodden on. Artefacts that somehow infect the conceptually clean gallery space with some of their own physical fuzziness.


Port City Live Art Weekender, Arnoflini, Bristol, UK, Sept 28-30

Osunwunmi was in the 2006 RealTime-Inbetween Time Festival workshop and is participating in the Live Art UK initiative, Writing for Live Art.

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 34

© Osunwunmi ; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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