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Prem Sahib/ Shenece Oretha at Somerset House Assembly 2024: The Importance of Language and Sound

On the evening of 21st March, I entered Somerset House’s Lancaster Rooms to find an assortment of chairs arranged in a circle. All were empty but three. In what resembled an absent orchestra, the rest of the chairs had speakers placed on them. As the audience settled, Suella Braverman’s voice erupted through these speakers, playing her infamous speech about refugees and immigration. Don’t mistake this, though, as it wasn’t a pro-Tory rally but rather a scathing investigation of language and its ability to be manipulated.

Prem Sahib presented his work named Alleus (cleverly, Suella spelt backwards), a sound sculpture of live and pre-recorded voices. At first, I was skeptical: the speech played as the three vocalists repeated the phrase ‘the British people’. It continued like this for a couple of minutes, creating a slow-paced accentuation of Braverman’s word choice, evidently a criticism of her attempts to create an us-versus-them situation.

However, the pace quickly picked up. Repetition turned into distortion, with the vocalists saying words backwards then culminating in screams, whispers, and shouts. At one point, it was impossible to even distinguish words, with high-pitched screams and metallic whistles overriding the ability to understand language. While I found this grating and overstimulating, that was the point: to disorientate and possibly imitate the agony of those who find themselves in the horrific situation of refugee status. Sahib makes a strong argument about language’s ability to be manipulated for political agendas, the work forefronting Braverman’s use of language as a political tool of manipulation to suggest that refugees are a ‘threat’ to British society.  

The use of performance enabled Sahib to linger on language and display it in a collective voice. The audience was arranged in a circle around the performers, creating a sense of community. Alongside this, the use of three performers elevated this speech to transform it into a collective voice, suggesting the importance of collectivism in combatting these injustices and of situating ourselves with a group of resistance.  

After a brief pause to reset the space, we were welcomed by a second performer, Shenece Oretha. Upon entering, the same circular layout of the audience remained, but in the middle of the room sat three oil drums and a DJ set- up. Oretha entered the space after a brief introduction, a multi-disciplinary artist whose performance is rooted in Caribbean heritage, exploring this through a mixture of sound, installation, and audience participation. Her work invites questions of communal agency and challenges audience culture in Britain, drawing instead on Caribbean performance traditions that require response and participation’.

Oretha began by asking us to participate in a breathing exercise of taking deep breaths in and out. This created a calm but inviting atmosphere, a well-needed respite from the emotionally heavy work of the previous performance. She then proceeded to ask us to engage with percussion. Some audience members were handed flowers with poppy seed heads that turned out to be maracas. Oretha asked those audience members to shake the flowers and invited the rest of us to make sounds with our bodies; there were a varied range of responses, from singing to foot stomping, clapping, and whistling. Among a great sense of togetherness, we were also contributing to the creation of this music rather than merely being audience members. This participatory aspect of the show was what I enjoyed most: feeling immersed in the performance rather than simply a spectator. 

After this, she poured a handful of seeds onto each oil drum and utilised what I assume to be vibrations from the mixing deck so that the seeds would jump up and down, fluctuating with temperament as vibrations increased or decreased. Oretha proceeded to walk to each drum, slowly lifting the lids of each to increase the activity of the beads, creating a sound that resembled humming. After lingering on this for a couple of minutes, she culminated the performance with a celebration of our collaborative efforts and thanked us for our participation. 

Overall, the event was thought-provoking. For me, reflecting on the performances afterwards allowed me to appreciate them more. Prem Sahib’s poignant sound sculpture reminds us of the fractured political climate in the UK currently, questioning the use of language as a mode of political manipulation. Following this, Shenece Oretha’s immersive, audience-led performance speaks to the necessity of unity and the importance of sound as a form of communication. Although not explicitly obvious, the performances were linked by their questions of collaboration and agency.  The night, although emotionally complex, was a great exploration of the power of sound and language.

To find out about future events held by Somerset House, keep an eye on their website and Instagram.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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