Not by accident does East Oakland-based “dark artist” Patricia Cram resemble the pale, diaphanous vamps that populate B horror movies and 19th-century Gothic literature. Also known by her stage name, Syrai Nahagua Kyoko Imena Kei Furia, she wears long lacy dresses, jangly bracelets, and blouses cut low enough to reveal the elaborate tattoo on her chest — a black anatomical heart with vines that claw outward, like a tangle of arteries.
Cram lives in an East Oakland warehouse formerly used as a venue for underground raves and a crash pad for tweakers. When she moved in four years ago the place looked like a flophouse or witches’ coven. She cleaned it up, knocked out a wall, and furnished the rooms with vintage chandeliers, peacock feathers, lacy green parasols, several upright pianos, a birdcage bearing a taxidermied bird, and eventually, a colony of flesh-eating beetles. She and her boyfriend even built an underground theater from which to run their fetish-oriented performing arts collective, Constructs of Ritual Evolution.
Cram characterizes herself as a misanthrope, although she has always sought like-minded souls who inhabit the same parallel universe — people fascinated by blood, death, and “primal urges,” who revel in the taboo-ness of it all. Yet she also likes to be onstage.
In 2001, Cram graced a dark arts fete in Washington state where she performed with a group that used blood and animal parts to expose the nether side of mainstream food production. The festival’s founder was an opal-eyed femme fatale who goes by the alias Zaskia Morgan and instantly took a liking to Cram. Which shouldn’t be too surprising, given their mutual interest in the politics of meat (Morgan had been a vegan and staunch animal-rights activist for several years), tattoo art (the line of spikes inked across Morgan’s forehead make a nice counterpoint to Cram’s extravagant heart), and their shared experience of living in the Pacific Northwest (Cram grew up in Oregon, while Morgan spent years in Washington). They became friends and wound up living in the same warehouse, which also serves as a practice pad for Morgan’s industrial metal band, Headless Lizzy and her Icebox Pussy. They spent years performing together, initially in a friend’s “neo-geisha” group — which required its members to wear obis and kimonos with fetish garments underneath, and make elaborate, choreographed gestures over a battery of drums. “It was very pretty and feminine and you know, sort of simple in that regard,” Cram recalled. But she and Morgan eventually wanted to create something with more gravitas.
So, two years ago, they formed the ritual performance duo Aixela, which started with the idea of reaching inward to find something intimate and private, and figuring out how to represent it. The result, say Morgan and Cram, is supposed to get at some nether part of the human soul. Few people have gotten to see Aixela in flesh, but you can catch them on a three-minute grainy black-and-white YouTube clip: Cram and Morgan appear clad in halter tops and wraparound skirts. They wear heavy makeup: paintbrush eyebrows, Lillian Gish lips, pressed powder, and eyeliner black as slag. They drink from goblets and spit the liquid out at one another, wave folded fans, then devour some kind of fruit and smear it all over their skin. Drummers beat out a thunderous jungle rhythm in the background. What the viewer is to make of it all is not precisely clear.
“There’s a secret to Aixela,” said Morgan, explaining that a lot of their rituals derive from a process they call “bibliomancy.” One of them closes her eyes and stumbles over to Cram’s bookshelf, picks out whatever book she grasps first, opens it to any page and allows herself to be directed to a word or passage. Judging from the titles on the books’ spines — a list that included Gray’s Anatomy, novels of William S. Burroughs, works by Anaïs Nin, and several art history books — the two surely don’t suffer from a dearth of material. The idea is to zero in on that scrap of text and overanalyze it until it inspires some kind of motion. Thus, Aixela creates a sublimated form of expression that exceeds human language — a kind of visual vocabulary for what Cram refers to as “the feminine abyss.” Every minute gesture becomes freighted with meaning, she said: “There’s a lot of transgression and transcendence.”
For all their tattoos, taxidermied animals, and talk of transgression, Cram and Morgan are very girly. They are prone to fits of giggles. Their Tribe.net site features dozens of glamour shots, in which the performers pose seductively in front of graffiti walls or industrial pipes — often in costume (mostly fetish garb, though they occasionally trade the corsets for beaded gowns, Stetsons, and, in one particularly sultry shot, a fishnet veil). The impetus for Aixela is partly to challenge notions of what’s socially acceptable. But it’s also pretty straightforward: Girls like to play dress-up, after all.
There is an element of exhibitionism to the duo that goes against Cram’s supposed misanthropy. “I had been wanting to have events for a while, you know, which is just sort of absurd because I’m very antisocial,” Cram explained. “And I really relate to her — the black something — which is like, what the fuck?” Not to mention that they’ve gone on from doing solstice and equinox rituals to performing at belly dance festivals and mainstream venues like the DNA Lounge.
There are other contradictions to Aixela, as well. They fixate on gore and death, though Cram is actually a vegetarian, and Morgan went from being vegan to macrobiotic to only eating organic meat. They can be mercurial. Morgan admits to having a real short fuse when confronted with “close-minded ignorance.” They eschew the word “goth” because it’s such a loaded term. And they have to navigate in the straight world as well, because even fetishists have day jobs. Cram’s job is very literal, despite all her attempts to transgress human language. She’s a reading tutor.