THIRST AND FURY
Izdihar Afyouni performs Jailhouse Mentality at Gut Feelings in Centrala, Birmingham, 6th July 2018
Written by Maggie Kuzan
Photo: Maria Procz
A projection of a black and white grid beams on the gallery wall, the only source of light in a room submerged in darkness. Before it, three empty chairs and meters-long thick, coarse rope ravelled into a coil. Inanimate objects await contact with the breathing, pulsating human form, hoping to turn into something magical, like finger markings on a window, emerging from the vapour of warm breath.
As the dense drone begins reverberating in the hollow space, signalling the start of the performance, the artist Izdihar Afyouni, who was disguised in the shadows of the audience, emerges tied to a pillar, prancing and scaling its height. Crossing the border between audience and stage, she throws us head-first into her energetic outpouring of emotion – writhing, grinding, hopping and contorting her body in both discord and harmony with the three identical chairs. Rapid and jolting movements mirror the staccato sparse intrusions of clanging sounds in the accompanying backtrack. ‘An orgy of chairs!’, the artist exclaimed when I asked her what her performance is about, and somehow these words continue to burrow deep in my memory, for lack of a better summation.
Photo: Maria Procz
Izdihar’s ‘orgy of chairs’ titled ‘Jailhouse Mentality’, is a live art piece combining elements of contemporary dance, rope bondage and guttural sound to the effect of creating a movement meditation, investigating masochism, rage and desire. Although formally trained in painting, Izdihar works with a range of mediums including sculpture, video and immersive theatre/performance, with ‘Jailhouse Mentality’ belonging to the latter. Producing work that is often physically brutal and testing, the artist is interested in political notions of the body and its regulation under regimes of surveillance.
Photo: Maria Procz
‘Jailhouse Mentality’ is a defiant expression of gut rage and desire, a counter-attack on a sanitising and censoring society. It is a sensory manifestation of the most primal, instinctive and carnal desires that brew within us, and rarely surface for fear of humiliation or rejection. Here, they come to life in grunts, screams, sometimes fluid, sometimes jerky, actions and impulses. The performance is filled with unrelenting energy – for over seven minutes the artist ties herself to the chairs in elaborate ways, weaving and warping the rope, delighting in the tension of grating material against flesh. There is constant resistance between all the bodies, beautifully illustrated through the artist’s extension of her arms deep into space, as if they were as pliable as Plasticine, tensing her muscles to convey the tug and pull between herself and the objects she comes into contact with. At the height of the piece, the music boiling in a clatter of percussive sounds, Izdihar’s body becomes indistinguishable from the props – limbs knot and intertwine with chair legs, negative space vanishes…
Video: Centrala Space
But Izdihar’s performance moves far beyond the aesthetic. She occupies a precarious space – as an Arab female artist interested in less conventional forms of desire, her work is often met with hostility and persecution in the Middle East. She also faces backlash from ‘liberal’ western audiences, who ‘other’ her work – during the evening, we received a complaint from a white woman named Linda. In spite of all this, Izdihar remains uncompromising and fearless, not diluting her work to meet the tepid palettes of mass audiences.
A surge of excitement floods my body as I watch the interplay between Izdihar and the audience unfold. Although utterly consumed by the chaotic and unnerving pounding drums and electronic dissonant chords, which dictate her every step, Izdihar manages to connect with her audience. We enter a special place, reserved only for those willing to do some groundwork – to trust and let go of their individual egos, and confront their deepest fears. Giving a platform to artists who challenge racism, sexism, fascism, medieval ideologies and archaic politics is crucial if we are ever going to change prevailing norms. Through performances like this, we can, in Izdihar’s words:
“connect to on a primitive level … interrogate our fast-held ideologies and prejudices, suggest new and radical ways of being together and even alter our perception of what it means to be human.”