Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
15.07 – 19.08.2017
Representation isn’t generally used by observant Muslims as a means of counteracting the negative images of the faith that are so increasingly prevalent, in a Western media space rife with hysteria and fear in the wake of the spate of ISIS attacks on European soil. With the strict aniconism that forbids the representation of religious figures and – in the most stringent cases – the representation of the human form, Islam may be seen, by many outsiders, as one of the most anti-art of religions. However the work of the Essop twins, Hasan and Husain has presented a counter to this impression thanks to their clever, humourous and historically enlightening photographs, which have shed light on the lives of Cape Muslims.
Their way around aniconism has been to present only themselves in their work and it’s a ploy that has brought them both acclaim and perhaps sometimes a little dismissal as artists with one trick up their sleeves that observers have not always being able to see going much further than it has. However, their new show ‘Refuge’ is the brothers’ most politically pointed yet and moves significantly beyond their previous inward focus on their own culture and lives towards an engagement with the way in which the world perceives Muslims and the ways in which the actions of a few are causing great harm to the many.
Inspired by the world’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis and the attacks in Paris, Manchester and other cities, the brothers have created a moving and intriguing body of images. These raise questions not only about how the West has surrendered to stereotype and invective in its representation of Muslims but also about the similarities in a history of displacement and disruption that link refugees in Syria to the brothers’ own history as descendants of the slaves brought to the Cape over three centuries ago.
Signage – the great bureaucratic indicator of small-minded moral majority intolerance – is used here to take the recent Trump travel ban to its logical conclusion – ‘No Muslims’ and of course the ‘Muslims Only’ opposite; both equally unhelpful. It’s easy for anyone who has grown up with the history of apartheid South Africa to get the point. And yet as Israel has shown, a history of being othered does not automatically induce a reluctance to othering. An image like Border Wall in which four young men sit in the shadow of what can only be taken as the wall separating Palestinians from Israel, reflects the helplessness of those painted with the stain of bearing no sin other than their adherence to a misunderstood faith to which the response has been brutal exclusion and overblown, stubborn defensiveness.
The video installation from which the show takes its name is a simple but effective attempt to alleviate the anxiety, which many outsiders seem to have at the images of the millions of faithful who make hajj to Mecca where the Kabba stands. What are they doing down there? Well it’s not that complicated as it turns out and it’s certainly not full of crazed anti-westerners furiously plotting terrorism. Rather they’re just trying to get their seven perambulations in as required by one of the five pillars of Islam.
The majority of the images act as a narrative of the journey of refugees from a land in which ISIS like fighters are beheading fellow Muslims through to the escape of the persecuted on overcrowded boats to new shores and their arrival in countries which refuse to protect them for fear of the very forces from which they have fled.
The poignant installation of a dinghy surrounded by children’s clothes, Are We There Yet, drives home the helplessness of the situation by removing the clothes from their wearers, reinforcing the idea that these could be any child’s clothes, floating in any myriad of unfriendly waters, stranded between the ruthless terror of ISIS behind them and the cold, irrational intolerance of Europe ahead.
Not all is hopeless and bleak though, as demonstrated by the series of portraits in which the brothers have created their own set of Islamic superheroes, repurposing western pop-culture for a people who may well feel at the moment that they have few heroes to fight for them against the reactionary representational forces being wielded by the Rupert Murdochs of the world.
Through their re-presentation the Essops have done their art and their faith a significant service in addressing the misrepresentation that is at the heart of so many current depictions of the increasingly fraught relationship between Islam and the West. Perhaps the intolerant and misguided– whose flag is flying all too horrifyingly visibly on television news these days – will realise that, as the Essop’s own Black Flag reminds us so effectively: “Islam does not kill. People do.”