Sonia Hughes ‘I am from Reykjavik’ | review

Words by Hannah Draper. Performed at Edinburgh Fringe as part of Horizon Showcase.

Monday 22nd August 4.19 pm, Portobello Promenade

I walk along the promenade to find Sonia Hughes. A small crowd is gathered in the distance in front of the shell of a small wooden structure. It is a grey day of dreich and wind. I stand for a while, then walk around along the beach behind and watch from different angles. People come up to talk to Hughes as she builds the compact wooden house-like structure, some offer to lend a hand. The structure becomes support for the body as Hughes leans on it while she talks to members of the public. It is leaned over as you would across a kitchen table. I cannot hear the conversations shared across this space; they remain intimate and held within the area of the dwelling. The sound of the sea helps to conceal these conversations from the rest of the audience. Hughes wears a long emerald green dress which bellows in the coastal breeze. Its regal appearance seems unfitting for the construction work of the performance, but highlights Hughes’ ownership of the abode that she is building.

Wednesday 24th August, Linksview House, Leith

Today I am working, so I watch the performance unfold over the 7 hours of building from afar on the livestream account on Instagram (@soniahughes192). Sonia sets up in front of the mural that reads ‘You’re Worth Your Room on This Earth’ on the side of Linksview House, an 11-floor post-war block of flats in the Kirkgate area of Leith. The photos show people sheltering under umbrellas, sat around the structure sharing tea with Hughes. The mural in the background seems a fitting choice for the performance in which Hughes is taking up residence in space without asking. She will build her dwelling over the course of the day whether people offer to help, or stand and watch, or walk by. 

Friday 26th August 11.42am, Holyrood Park

I cycle to the park, prop my bike up against a tree and walk over to where Sonia has marked out the dwelling for today; the final day of performance in Edinburgh. A yellow square with two gaps, doorways, in the middle of which the structure sits. There are pot plants in one corner. We are at the edge of the park, situated in a clearing of planted oaks, rowan trees and pear trees looking over the stone wall where you can see Holyrood Palace with all its many windows, blinded and shut off. The ruins of Holyrood Abbey stand beside it, currently also under construction. Today I go up and speak to Hughes; she jokes that both her and the queen are having work done. The structure faces towards the palace in a decisive stance. Made in response to her parents being turned away from a holiday booking on the Isle of Wight after the owners found out they were Black, the performance questions the idea of belonging to and possessing space and what systemic structures of exclusion are involved in this. As we look out over Holyrood Palace, Hughes says ‘me and the Queen’, pondering over what that relationship might be. Between the solidity of a stone palace handed down over generations, remaining empty and preserved, in comparison to Hughes’ portable wooden structure — exposed to the elements, but adaptable, movable and shared with the public.

Sonia describes to me how the structure is made to the dimensions of her body. The short end corresponds to her height as the sits on a chair, while the taller entrance side is equal to her height standing up. The length is the measurement of her coffin. She makes her way to the floor and stays there a while, resting, eyes closed. I sit and watch and look around; held in Hughes’ space and time. There is no rush; she will build the structure in the time it takes, responding to her own needs and the needs of the body as she does so. 

Hughes welcomes conversations from the public, asks questions about where people live and where they might move. She is curious, while also being reassured in her own time and actions; I am aware that I have been welcomed into her space.

A seafront, a block of flats, the Queen’s palace; a liminal space, a crowded dwelling, an empty, imperial house. I am from Reykjavik asks what it means for somewhere to become home and through which actions this is formed — both from the inhabitant and from the public; what actions are allowed and not allowed, what conversations are had, where is help given and how tea is shared.