A Cultural Cannibal On Being Brave

Flames crawl up her arms, lasso her body and circle her face, and yet her eyes show no fear, only delighted, childlike wonder. Kerosene fumes permeate the air and tiny mirrors sewn into her handmade costume reflect a fiery mosaic. This Wolf in steampunk bedlah clothing has harnessed a blazing serpent as her dance partner in an electrifying, hypnotic waltz. A transfixed Newcastle Bellydancing Festival crowd encircles the fire djinn, dust rising as her bare feet pound and twist into the earth.

People are often stunned when they see the width of disciplines performer Wolf Ifritah’s arts practice covers. Some see a fire performer, some a dancer, a maker of amateur electronics, a graphic designer, costumer, object manipulator, visual artist, geek coder. Her Crack Theatre biography describes her, amongst other things, as a “cultural cannibal”. At 42 years of age, Ifritah’s gypsy-like existence, with formative years spent living outside conventional and traditional societal norms, has lead to her evolution as a creative chameleon of sorts. Her dyslexia may also have played a part.

In Islamic theology, it is said that djinns, or ifrits, are winged creatures made of “smokeless fire” who live underground and are noted for their strength and cunning. While Ifritah’s background isn’t quite as fantastical, it is no less unusual, and the challenges she’s faced along the way have furnished her with these traits. Her childhood was spent growing up in western Sydney in group houses and communes with radical hippies and a politically-active gay parent.

“I often don’t tell people about my childhood because there really aren’t many others who would have had the same experiences. The idea of gay parenting is not 100% accepted in society yet.

“My upbringing in a non-traditional environment gave me many life skills, such as questioning authority, thinking for oneself, analysing, gauging what you can get away with without being chased down the street with pitchforks… On the other hand, it’s also given me social isolation, a persecution complex and the inability to feel like I can be myself with most people. You know, most people are alarmingly conservative. Having said that though, I wouldn’t swap it for quids.”

Although you’d be hard-pressed to find it on a map, Ifritah’s road-less-travelled passed through Canberra, where she moved to in her early teens and completed high school. It was here that she first ventured into the world of performance.

“Early performances were with a group called Splinters, a weird anarchic mob that did large-scale works involving fire and puppets and pyrotechnics. I left after a friend lit some firecrackers and got himself hospitalised. I decided it wasn’t actually safe. It was predominantly heterosexual – before I came out. My focus shifted to bellydance, which at least made me income. For some time I worked in restaurants and one in particular where I felt comfortable.”

Cosmopolitan Melbourne then caught the eye of this gypsy, so she parked her caravan there for a spell.

“In Melbourne, the expectation of me as a bellydancer to embody a certain type of woman was too much – I stopped performing. It took many years to come back to performing and even longer to make performance part of my “arts” practice. There’s a certain cultural elitism – an implied value that dance forms that are not ballet or contemporary dance are somehow worth less or have a lesser cultural value. For a long time I was not brave enough to step out and perform the kinds of work I really wanted to make.

“I don’t necessarily perform as myself. Rather, most of my performances are in character. Even as a bellydancer, I used to joke it was a form of drag. I never really wanted to dance for the male gaze. I’m far more interested in how females respond to a performance.”

Little academic research has been done to document the issues faced by emerging queer performers in regional Australia. There are, however, studies like A Queer Country (A. Gorman-Murray et al. 2008) and Screen Actors Guild-America’s 2013 study, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity: Diversity In Entertainment, along with anecdotal accounts from a chorus of queer performers like Ifritah, that give some insights into what it might be like for those in a minority, historically discriminated against, to be standing up in a small town and drawing attention to themselves through their art. In the Gorman-Murray study, which looked at the politics of ‘queer belonging’ in one particular Australian country town, it was found that the town’s support of queer performance events garnered it a reputation for being gay-friendly, but that there was underlying resentment from local residents towards the queer community. It’s a situation echoed throughout regional and rural Australia with discrimination, bigotry, misunderstanding, censorship, artists’ self-censorship due to fear of reprisal, and lack of opportunity and support on many levels the recurring themes. It was during Ifritah’s time living in Wollongong that some of these issues became particularly pronounced.

Ifritah says, “There’s a lack of focus. In Sydney, you have Mardi Gras as a huge arts festival with great opportunities. In regional areas, gay culture can be harder to find – it’s usually hiding under the cover of heteronormative disguise, lest it be chased down the road by fork-wielding bogans. It’s expected as a cultural norm for gay males to be part of the theatre – it’s almost a stereotype – but for women, I think the issues are much deeper. Women working in almost all art forms seem to get less recognition and less money. I’m currently working in a women’s circus and sometimes I really do feel like the only gay in the village. It can be lonely and there’s a lack of intelligent dialogue ‘cause the whole landscape is full of minefields. It’s dangerous territory… there be dragons… Oh wait, I am the dragon.”

A scan of Wollongong news media may have you believing that queer performance in the region is confined only to the hosting of a drag show every other year. In Ifritah’s experience, this is a reality. Even going underground doesn’t offer any other opportunities, albeit of the surreptitious sort.

“Let’s call it the gay ghetto. Aside from arts festivals, the landscape there is pretty barren. It’s no wonder most sensible queers will move to larger cities. In Sydney, my peers have Hellfire, the Red Rattler and a few other year-round venues and festivals that are more queer-oriented.

“Underground can be very much a clique of recent graduates and locals. Though my sexuality is not at a point where by I’d be ruled out of these networks, they are for the most part predominantly heterosexual. The drag clubs are predominantly gay men, so I slip down the cracks and am lost in the gutter of underrepresentation.”

For now, Ifritah calls Newcastle, NSW home; not quite the big smoke, certainly not a sleepy coastal village, but just big enough to keep her connected and producing. Although she is yet to find a comfortable sense of belonging, it is here that our lone Wolf has been encouraged to develop her arts practice.

“I live 5 metres from the local drag pub. I don’t go there often, but it makes me feel comfortable, more like I fit in somewhere. Most of the dancers and circus freaks I know are heterosexual. There is room for me to fit in with their performances, but no place or venue that I would say my performance fits. I’m working on that, but it will take some time.

“My current practice has evolved into costume play and object manipulation wrapped in the sugar coating of dance. The last performance piece I did, The Electric Naga, was a kind of emergence for me as a soloist after many years of working in a troupe. As a visual artist and person who has made large-scale puppets (also for Mardi Gras), I enjoyed the process of creating a costume and character and exploring the potential for storytelling. As a tech geek, I enjoyed the making and prototyping of the props using LEDs, learning to program the micro controllers and batteries. As a performer going solo, I enjoyed disproving and experimenting with structured improv and object manipulation.

“The characters I am interested in exploring don’t fit in this world. Nominally, you might say they have no hope of ever being accepted as “normal”. This for me is part of the status quo. I’m deeply drawn to the monstrous feminine, the unseen and the unreal. I guess it’s a form of hyper drag that has crossed over from playing with gender to playing with notions of humanity and the acceptance of diversity and difference. The Electric Naga in a sense can be read as an exploration of the inherent beauty and sadness and anger of the feminine monster archetype.”

Although pushed to the fringe in part because of her queer identity, Ifritah doesn’t hide this aspect of herself from audiences, although what they see may be in camouflage.

“My identity is not only bound to my performance, but is so ingrained into the bones of it that it’s hard to identify it as separate. Arguably the very fact that I’m standing up and being visible is driven by my queerness – a reaction to my invisibility to the mainstream. The denial and vilification of my culture by the mainstream makes just existing from day-to-day a queer performance. By bringing my characters out into the light to be seen, I am both forging their creation and validating my right to exist.

“The Naga was very much conceived in the world of online gaming as an avatar. It’s very much a part of queer culture to engage in identity play. Often people will focus on the gender part of this play, however I think that this ability to create and play out character’s alternate selves is not just a part of queer culture, but a survival trait. We learn very early on who we can trust with the truth of our lives. We censor and blend our personalities, traversing fluidly, becoming chameleons.”

Fortunately for Ifritah, being a queer performer in regional Australia hasn’t all been about being chased down the street by pitchfork-wielding bigots.

“Most people just see the pretty lights. I’ve got good feedback from the Naga so far. People are fascinated by the costume and I love to point out the Apple keyboard and the wires and plastic bags that make her. The costume was created from consumer waste and has a strong environmental message. It was kind of post apocalyptic. The Naga was reclaiming her habitat from humans. It’s arguably queer to engage in non-human costume play (Google ‘furries’ or ‘furkind’), however that connection is most likely very lost on a straight audience and I’m not going to jump up and down and point it out – it’s hard enough just being a dyke. Let’s say it’s post-human.

“People really have quite diverse reactions to this work. I am learning that whatever my agenda, most people will bring their own stories and interpretations to the work I put out, and that’s ok.”

As with The Electric Naga, Ifritah’s latest performance piece is one with a message. And fire.

“Most of my work is also influenced by gamer culture. The title for my next performance “l007”, or lewt, comes from gamer culture. I’ll be using my graphic design skills to create counterfeit money, distributing it and setting it alight. I’m interested in female roles that are rebellious, dangerous and scary. I’m interested in characters that have agency and use it. I want my audiences to be more involved, so I’ll be inviting audiences to burn the money as well. It’s technically illegal to burn currency, so I’ll be using counterfeit money – a simulacrum of a simulacrum to show the illusion of value in our society. Probably more punk than queer, I guess. Ultimately I address gender by not playing to the expectation of femininity or masculinity – both are binary definitions I’m not really interested in exploring at the present.

“I’m still emerging. I know I’m 40-something and though I haven’t spent my life hiding under a rock, I feel like it’s taken me a long time to stitch the separated pieces of my identity into a practice I can call my own.”

To other emerging queer performers, Ifritah offers this advice: “Be brave. Your story will make others brave.”

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