Hellen Rose

In Artist Profile 56, Hellen Rose shared an essay on her practice, just a few weeks before she departed Australia for her base in Afghanistan. In this essay, she explores her collaborative projects with Yellow House Jalalabad, the transgressive work of the feminine voice, her work against what she terms "soul crime," and her band of the same name.

In 2011, George Gittoes and I were invited to speak at the World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression at Oslo about the Yellow House Jalalabad. ‘All That is Banned is Desired – A World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression.’ There I met one of the escaped women of the group Pussy Riot. We became friends and I invited her to get a lift with us to an event. She became nervous and said, “Are you sure? I think that Russian Intelligence are trying to kill me.” Getting her into the car was tricky, we had a decoy car and a double getting into a car out the front while we got into a car at the side of the hotel. While riding in the car with her, she became terrified and hunkered down the back, hiding beside me covering her face. I put my arm around her to help her hide. Once our driver had zipped down every back lane we arrived at a venue where the whole group was gathered – armed Norwegian guards ushered us through the drive entrance. At the dinner my Pussy Riot friend finally felt relaxed and we laughed and joked. I told her that “punk girls don’t get old, they just go to war.” We giggled and had a competition at the buffet seeing if we could stuff two meat balls into our mouths at once. 

George and I were in the middle of making our feature documentary Love City Jalalabad, 2013, and had both flown directly from Afghanistan to Oslo.  Once back in Jalalabad I created my underground studio in the bomb shelter. I had to wear a burqa when outside of the Yellow House in town and I could not be heard singing or seen dancing beyond the walls of the Yellow House, so I came up with the Bomb Shelter studio idea. This underground cavern became a total outlet and fantasy realm for me, I had it made into a cushion room completely in black and red velvet and it feels like being buried in the womb of the earth, or like I Dream of Jeannie in her bottle. Everyone at the Yellow House calls it the Magic Room so I spell it Majiic RoOom. I started a written journal, a story called The Haunted Burqa Manifesto – based on many unexplainable occurrences in Jalalabad, a place lost in time due to thirty years of war and very little to do with the outside world, magic still feels alive there.  

All women are under a type of house arrest, it is illegal for a woman to be out of the house at night or to be unaccompanied in the day, if she is allowed to go to the market. While out all women are under scrutiny. One boiling hot day I had the zippers on my leggings to the ankle open, when I was told by a complete stranger to “zip up” lest I be seen as immodest. Had I told the man to “go to hell,” I could have been beaten by him and stoned to death on the spot. I started to think about why men fear women so much, why women are seen as inhuman, punishable, a toy for the pleasures or basest perversion of men, a “breeder” or someone to scapegoat for their own misgivings.  At one stage, one of the women we had working with us was actually accused by the men at the Yellow House of being a Witch, and they were convinced they had seen her flying around the garden at night. We discovered that she was a sleep walker, suffering “night terrors” from a previous trauma. I started to think about how thrilling it would feel to be free and ride brooms and turn into a monster to scare the evil men who treat us as less than human. The young women who attend my film and editing workshops, the Yellow House Jalalabad Women’s Team, all come up with names for their group work like The Scorpions or The Lionesses. I realised that the word niqab meant veil or mask in Dari and I bought a lot of amazing pretty masks from a costume store in Norway. George bought a whole lot of gory monster masks for the boys, and I decided to lay them all out for the women to see. Straight away they went to the horror masks and put them on, running around the garden shrieking and growling, they completely ignored the pretty ones. They dreamed of freedom just as the girls of Pussy Riot do, liberty over their own lives, the right to walk freely, unshackled, to speak freely and show their faces in the market place, on the television, anywhere without an imposed patriarchal sense of “shame,” and to be treated with respect.  

The darkness of my below-ground studio posed technical problems for George who I recruited to photograph the tableaus – he had to have the shutter very wide open and we had to be very still. Some of the blurred works look surreal/hyperreal. I wanted to create a series of phantasmagorical works, a “constructed situation” where I manifest the unthinkable – the team at the Yellow House got to see and participate in the illusion, the nightmare “monstrous feminine” come together in costume and performance. Their approach was surprisingly like working on every movie – they clearly differentiate between reality and fantasy when it comes to performing. The reality was at the time, that George and I both had trepidations about doing these works. They kind of look fairy tale-ish, deep under the ground out of sight even from those who may not understand, yet no-one objected. I kept thinking about Masha [Maria Vladimirovna Alyokhina] from Pussy Riot’s words in her closing speech at her court trial in Moscow, “Nobody can take away my inner freedom, it lives in the world . . .  this freedom will go on living with everyone who is not indifferent . . . these things will make all of us just a little bit freer.”  

The day before my birthday in March 2015, an Islamic Studies teacher, Farkhunda, was beaten to death in the streets of Kabul by a raging mob of men who also threw her from a rooftop, ran over her with a car and burned her.

Nina Auerbach’s study of Woman and the Demon in English Victorian literature, 1982, examines literary “works whose comedy and terror depend upon the potential interchangeability between woman and creature . . . the Victorian universe crawls with anomalies from whose weird energy only man is excluded.” It has always seemed so ironic to me that the men who destroy and bash women like braying hounds see woman as the monster in reality as well as mythology. 

Reading about Afghan Witches, creatures who had knives for tongues and feet that went backwards blurred with western images, birthing a vision and idea of a Witch/Demon entity hiding underground in Jalalabad who, joined at night with the women of the village to breath the night air, fly and enjoy themselves, dancing and singing freely, uncatchable and without judgment, appealed to me. At one stage I taught my students how to use the drone camera, and they were so excited to see the footage of the town like the Lady of Shalot who can only view the world through the looking glass – for my students, usually through the gauze of a stifling burqa. Viewing the small screen of a flying camera thrilled them immensely like spying the world through a crystal ball, or indeed flying themselves.

I felt it was my duty to my Afghan students to give them a sense empowerment and freedom whilst in the guarded confines of the Yellow House. Having fun playing theatre sports and learning meditation were my gifts to my students who had never experienced a sense of how to access “inner freedom,” and seldom indulged in fun and play.  Nadya on trial, from Pussy Riot, said something extraordinarily simple but so powerfully true in relation to those who were prosecuting her and her group: “Despite the fact that we are physically here, we are freer than everyone sitting across from us on the side of the prosecution. We can say anything we want, and we do say anything we want.”

When I was invited to be the first woman to sing in eighty years to a mixed gender gathering on International Women’s Day 2017, at the Governor’s Palace in Jalalabad, I had to sing with men on either side of the stage holding AK47s ready to shoot into the audience. There were direct threats to me and Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, who was turned back on her way from Kabul by IS who were on the edges of town, held back only by the Taliban. It was incredibly dangerous but I knew my students would be among the thousands gathered at the Governor’s Palace. They would not let George accompany me and I had to go alone. 

Every day I saw many women who were so desperate they would beg on the roads and often sit or kneel in the middle of the road, sometimes with a child in below-zero or fifty degree heat. The stories of the mutilations and miseries their tattered burqas hid were beyond belief.

Back in Werri Beach in New South Wales, during the Covid lockdown period in March 2020, I decided to create a performance piece based on my work in Afghanistan called The Haunted Burqa Manifesto, 2020, as well as the launch of my short film of the same name. The performance was quite simple and just had me wearing one of my burqas from Jalalabad here at Werri Beach, a seaside playground for girls in bikinis surfing freely and the antithesis of life for women in Jalalabad. I would simply go over to the beach, cross the road, go out to the backyard to a shallow grave, be buried, rise from the grave and “haunt the space” go back out on the road and beg, tapping on the bonnets and windows of cars. Performance art must have the dangerous element, the interaction with an unwitting public who are confused about what is going on, and react. This reaction is always the “gold” of every piece of performance art as it creates a situation where the public become the performance. “Get off the fuckin road ya Muslin cunt!” was one response; most drivers looked disgusted and tried to speed up or beeped at me. 

I had the pleasure of meeting the late American performance artist Carolee Schneemann several times, who admired our work at the Yellow House Jalalabad greatly. She really understood the “action” element of our work and felt that it was an exciting new approach. A quote from her is based on the work we do there, and specifically George’s lifetime of work: “But I do think we should try to send artists out into the world and not have them all stick together in the big cities.” 

I started thinking about what kind of “Riot Girl” art band I would create in the current climate. With the #MeToo campaign, the world seemed full of what I term “soul crime.” So, utilising the beat and sample song-creating style of Hip-Hop and Drill that I had learned while composing the soundtrack for White Light, 2020, I started sampling old horror movie soundtracks for a new 2021 Riot Girl sound. In my mind, that had to be a voice that made women formidable, bold, unflinching physically and psychologically – in the era of the new super heroine, Soul Crime was born! 

I wanted to create a psychic tipping point that could weigh the world back from the brink of pending destruction. Voice is a key element in most of my work and I have seen myself as a professional singer since I was fourteen. During the Covid years I decided to focus on classical singing techniques. I met the young world-famous coloratura soprano Mary Jean O’Doherty, and I decided to ask her to be part of this project. The classical and opera tradition is full of majestic heroines and I became thrilled at the idea of comtemporising them among a dark dreamscape of sound and visuals. I worked with the digital artist Linda Dement back in the mid-1990s on a pioneering interactive CD-ROM called, In My Gash, 1999, which features a character who seeks revenge for her hellish life of abuse. I thought of the child and young adult victims of [Jeffrey] Epstein and the like who seemed like a plague in these times as inspiration for the lyrics. Linda also used images from my performances in Jalalabad among her own, inspired by our music. Linda’s images are so powerful and have a dangerous, unrestrained element that steeps the audience in an immersive visual along with the music. Soul Crime utilises every singing style across the breadth of every culture from the blues, Afghanistan, fado, rancheros, pop, jazz. The songs are in multiple languages from Vietnamese Hmong, Australian Indigenous Noongar, Afghan Pashto, Maori, and Japanese as I wanted to call on all the women of every culture to unite in healing the world.

In The Haunted Burqa Manifesto, I am the faceless, voiceless, shrouded woman who no-one sees begging and tapping on your car window like the knocking under the floor boards in Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843. The woman who returns from the dead to haunt her killers. I am the blamed victim child-avenging angel who refuses to be silenced, who will indeed become the monster portrayed in all the sexist stories created to keep women in their place: the silent, compliant “victim,” tamed and “modest,” “angel” of the home, cooking, birthing and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, hiding my filthy body.  I am the daemon who haunts the dreams of rapists unreported or exposed. I bring justice of the damned to the soul murderers and soul criminals. I am the rage of the weeping women who see a man who drugged and raped them walking free. I am the blazing eyes who see those who hide their treachery, so-called “leaders” who rape young women in the houses of our Parliament and those who aid and abet them through negligence or indifference.

Cathartic empowerment of the traumatised is an ancient healing force; the singer who can stand alone in a room and take the audience on a journey with just voice and heart can be enough to save a soul. I saw this over and over again in the churches of South Side Chicago and at Memphis, railing out defiant of the oppressive hegemony. I am the “angry black woman” screaming to be heard as her children die over and over in the land of the free at the hands of the police, the system and the apathetic, or in the back of Bourke treated as if my life and my children’s is of no matter to this world. I am every one of them and they are me.

Quite often throughout my life and even nowadays, misogynists bully, and try to belittle me with taunts like “you’re like a drag queen” or “you’re scary.” In those moments I know my work is being done.

We are now putting together a festival show with Soul Crime to do the world festival circuit, and art performance venues including the Oxford Art Factory for the Sydney Festival 2022. We will be returning to The Yellow House Jalalabad in August this year to make a film on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and to create more performance works and continue working with my students and friends at the Yellow House Jalalabad.   

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.

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