Saoirse Amira Amis 001
Saoirse Amira Anis performing in Dundee. Photo: courtesy the artist

‘breach of a fraying body’, an Art Night performance by Saoirse Amira Anis, sprung ‘the creature’ in her new film from the confines of the gallery, down the streets, along Dundee’s waterfront and to the riverside beside Scotland’s oldest ship, docked there, HMS Unicorn.

The gallery where ‘the creature’ resides, Dundee Contemporary Arts, features sponge-painted green walls. A cushioned seat says to visitors ‘watch in comfort’. Anis’ film depicts ‘the creature’, a red figure whose costume, worn by Sara Barr in the film, is planted throughout the exhibition in various textural & sculptural forms. A limited-edition screenprint created for the exhibition is in a particular shade of green—Anis talks about mixing Fairy Liquid and watercolour paint in a previous mono-print to create a sea-foam hue that was scanned for the DCA screenprint—no surprise then that much of the work was made in the space between her kitchen and garden.

Venus is said to have been born from sea foam and Anis has much to say about female deities and their cultural significance. Inspiration for the costume design was gathered from a wealth of sources, including stories of the mythological Moroccan deity Aisha Qandicha, a figure whose fame and power as a jinn is associated with queer and sexual proclivities. Anis tells me how Aisha was also rumoured to have staved off Portugal’s attempt to colonise Morocco by luring sailors to a watery grave. And about Qandicha’s manifold depictions, how it is never quite clear whether she was a real woman, a mythological creature, or a jinn. She examines and teases out the taboo of female rage, referencing the mythological entities that are habitually praised or scorned in relation to patriarchal or colonial narratives: Anis is interested in the reclamation of these narratives.

Throughout her practice Anis navigates and reconciles her own dual connections to Scotland and Morocco and in the process of seeking common ground turns to the sea, where currents sweep the detritus of these northern and southern shorelines. Cowrie shells, native to both countries, are threaded through the work. Tied collectively to ropes, their distinctive clinking adds enchantment to the space—the creature is both gorgeous and strange, laden with ropes and shells.

In previous works, Anis employed other personae: in 2021 she created the Freedom Princess in a project that explored acceptance, care and vanity. Here, ‘the creature’ (she speaks of it with affection) is a conduit through which she navigates and expresses anger, hope and community action. For this latter, Anis also looked at Siphonophores, highly polymorphic and complex sea organisms that, while appearing as an individual organism, are actually multicellular units that combine to create functional colonies, their long, thin, transparent ‘bodies’ able to reproduce, digest, float etc as a single, but collective force. For Anis’ collaborative process, they are a natural fit and the two costumes created, for the exhibition and the Art Night performance, were collectively crafted. The first was designed by Anis and created with help from a host of Dundee creatives, including Zoe Gibson, Kate Scarlet Harvey, Rosie Handley, Joseph Donald, and Amina Benmalek. The Art Night costume takes its inspiration from the first, and was designed in collaboration with costume designer Sabrina Henry, textile artist Dr. Sequoia Barnes and Anis (with help from other Black and PoC artists Ashanti Harris, Shona Inatimi and Debjani Banerjee). Both are made structurally from twisted fabric ropes, though vary in their embellishments, which feature weaving, beading, shells, bells, squid eyes, horns and coral features.

In the film, Anis is not the wearer of the creature costume. She tells of the strangeness of not being the performer, of the new process of directing someone else and having her own feelings translated into movement of another’s body. But whether she is doing it herself or channeling through another, performance allows her to communicate very directly with the instinctive, intuitive senses that embody her practice.

In the film, following a tumultuous wrestle with emotion, the creature finds peace at the water’s edge. ‘In order to have hope, you have to embrace rage,’ Saoirse says. I ask about the word ‘breach’ in the performance’s title. Anis refers to Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’, stressing the importance of being a container. As with all containers, there is the capacity for overspill, for soaking, staining. For breaching.

In the exhibition, the word ‘slither’ is spelled in the character of the rope—literally slithering off the wall and onto the gallery floor. Anis says she was curious about how ropes collect and disseminate detritus as they trail across the environment—how they both catch and are caught. The costume forms proud detritus all over the exhibition space. Every strip of yarn and every bead pays testament to the friends and fellow artists who helped in the rope-making processes and the dyeing of the rope with madder root. Anis’ performance and exhibition showcase the creative efforts of a community that both supports and inspires her explorations. When asked about future projects, Anis hinted that her time with water was not finished yet and that she was eager to continue to follow the river wherever it leads.

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Cheryl McGregor is an arts writer and poet based in Dundee. Examples of her writing can be found at: linktr.ee/Cherylmcgregor

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symphony for a fraying body, DCA 20 May-6 August, 2023

‘breach of a fraying body’, DCA to HMS Unicorn, performance part of Art Night Dundee, 24 June, 2023