Imogen Butler-Cole's one woman show is not the sort of performance one typically expects to see on a Sunday night at Dhaka's EMK Centre. In its original incarnation, Foreign Body explored the story of the Greek prophet Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo for turning him down, and shines a light on the voicelessness of women around sexual violence.
However, it is not British artist Butler-Cole's voice you hear when the performance begins – at least not directly. The entire performance is based solely on her movements, and the only prop involved is a chair. It might seem a little bewildering at first, watching Butler-Cole's fluid movements flit across the stage – carrying the chair like a burden at one moment, stamping up and down on the stage in another, only to pause and stare at her own reflection in a mirror, or just run her fingers across her body and on to the chair while quietly looking into the audience.
Butler-Cole's movements are accompanied by a playback of women telling their stories of abuse, including the story of her own sexual assaults, as well as a testimony from one of the perpetrators. The result is a striking piece – the personal approach of the performance forces the audience to not only listen, but to look into the eyes of a survivor and question the rape myths that we are surrounded by. The strength of the play is in dispelling the stereotype of the violent stranger in the back alley and focusing on the fact that so many assaults happen in safe spaces, and are perpetrated by people in positions of trust, and in too many cases, the victims of assault are far too overwhelmed by a sense of shame to talk about it and start the process of healing.
The performance was followed by a Q&A session with the artist, Shireen Huq of Naripokkho and writer and activist Sadaf Saaz Siddiqui. In it, Butler-Cole explained how she felt the pressing need to break the silence around sexual abuse and focus on the importance of healing.
“I share my story in the hope that doing so will help destigmatise the dialogue around sexual assault. Talking about it without shame will shine a light on the topic, perhaps making it harder for people to perpetrate with impunity.”
When asked about her piece and the prop she used, the artist said “we just wanted to strip back and be as minimalistic as possible, and we started to experiment with the chair. At the start of the play it is very much attached to me – it's the wound, the burden that one is carrying. As we progress we just explore it, touch it and also touch my body, and just try to understand it and its boundaries. My hope is that it implies that the wound is still with me, but I integrate it – my chair is still there, I carry it sometimes and I put it down at times, but I heal and have compassion for that side of myself.”