Our Movement, Our Stories: Rhys Hollis on OMOS

We meet artist and performer Rhys Hollis as they prepare to open OMOS at the Royal Scottish Academy

Feature by Harvey Dimond | 29 Aug 2022

OMOS is a 20-minute moving image work featuring four award-winning performers: cabaret performer Rhys Hollis (also known as Rhys’s Pieces), opera singer Andrea Baker, dancer Divine Tasinda and pole artist Kheanna Walker. OMOS is inspired by the settings of Puck’s Glen near Dunoon and Stirling Castle, as well as a largely unknown historical vignette from 1594. At the court of King James VI of Scotland, a performance featuring a lion was planned but was changed at the last moment due to the obvious dangers that performing with the animal would entail. The lion was instead replaced by an unnamed Black man, who pulled a chariot through the castle’s Great Hall, one of many instances of Black performers in the royal courts in Scotland. Both the anonymity and the invisibilised labour of the Black performer are concerns that OMOS contends with and seeks to address.

Originally an acronym for the phrase ‘O monstrous! O strange!’, a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the acronym has developed a more compelling meaning, now standing for ‘Our Movement, Our Stories’. Each scene acts almost as a character study, representing the expansive history and complexity of Black Scottish identities and the LGBTQIA+ experience. OMOS throws open the doors for discussions around representations of Black people in arts and culture in Scotland and speaks to the Black queer experience in a context where queer spaces remain predominantly white and cisgender.

Across the film, the performers engage with the landscape of Puck’s Glen and Stirling Castle, each artist bringing their own interpretation of their craft for their respective performances. The colourful and dynamic costumes contrast with the sombre granite of Stirling Castle and add a sculptural definition to the verdant, green Scottish landscape. The versatility of movements changes the way in which the viewer engages with these historically charged landscapes and buildings, retracting and detracting certain details. Hollis speaks to the importance of showing "a variety of art forms, such as in this case drag, opera, pole dancing, and placing them in the same historical Scottish spaces." 

This is what makes the work particularly striking; how an array of diverse artistic performances is curated and synthesised so seamlessly in one work. Hollis tells me that they produce cabaret shows (which also feature in OMOS), so this experience meant that the visual curation of different art forms wasn’t as daunting when the work was being composed. OMOS beautifully showcases each individual artist while also being firmly committed to its collaborative process and identity.

Although it references the historic event at Stirling Castle and touches on contemporary personal experiences of tokenism, Hollis describes the moving image work coming out of a decision to create pro-actively rather than reactively: "In the early stages of the project, when I was thinking about this historic event where a Black person featured in a performance at Stirling Castle, I was thinking about that tokenistic experience. I factored this into my creative process and used my own experience of having wanted to be an actor and falling out of love with that due to the tokenism I experienced, and sometimes still do experience as a performer. However, when we were creating the artwork, rather than thinking about tokenism and reacting against it, the artists and I just thought about the art that we wanted to create and to do that in an authentic way." 

Hollis understands OMOS as being part of a longer, more extensive project, and they say it’s vital that workshops and community engagement are central pillars of the project. The exhibition is accompanied by an array of workshops in Edinburgh and beyond. These include an artist Q&A at The Royal Scottish Academy on 1 September; workshops with Rhys Hollis, Andrea Baker and Briana Pegado on 3 September at St Cecilia’s Hall, and two cabaret shows in Stirling and Edinburgh on 13 and 15 September. Excitingly, the performers plan to bring the work to more venues not only across Scotland, but across the UK and internationally, showcasing a plethora of Black Scottish talent. 

OMOS, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 3 Sep-2 Oct; find full details and booking info for OMOS events at royalscottishacademy.org