In an essay titled Pasting over the Holes of My Soul: Transformation in the Work of Igshaan Adams, Justin Davy remarks ‘that at the outset of his journey it became clear Igshaan Adams was not always going to travel alone, that he would take members of his family and community with him.’ Adams grew up in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town. In his latest show at blank projects – ‘stukkinne stories’ – it is once again the community of Bonteheuwel that he is bringing with him. He does this through a combination of sculptures and tapestries, all of which gradually begin to untangle piecemeal stories of the place where he grew up. More specifically ‘stukkinne stories’ is built around the intimate narratives and domestic lives within specific homes in Bonteheuwel with works titled like 11B Larche weg. Intimacy is further explored and brought to light through the personal manner in which Adams titles the works: By die voordeur (transl. at the front door), Sit kamer (transl. lounge), Op sy eie fokken tyd (transl. At his own fucking time), Muis neste (transl. mouse nests). In splinters and fragments, we’re let into the comings and goings of the residents of the homes and feel a sense of lighthearted familiarity.
Adams’ show is curated and presented together with Sabelo Mlangeni’s latest body of work, ‘The Royal House of Allure.’ The Royal House of Allure is a name of a (safe) House on mainland Lagos where members of the queer community live and make a life together. A House is a family unit that one is able to select into; a place of gathering for those who are not allowed to gather anywhere else. Houses are more than just places of survival, they are a physical embodiment of radical queer expression that encourage solidarity. House culture – which has been popularised through media such as Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning and FX’s drama series Pose – originates from New York’s ballroom culture which emerged in the 1920s and reached an apex in the 1980s. A matriarch, referred to as house mother, provides housing as well as a support system for members of the LGBTQIA+ community (referred to as her children). These establishments actively advocate for inclusivity and provide members of the community with a space to construct a sense of self through artistic practices within beauty, fashion, music and the wider ballroom culture. Mlangeni spent six weeks in 2019 in Lagos cultivating relationships and documenting the domestic lives of members of the House. Toward the end of the year, the collection of images was presented at the second edition of the Lagos Biennale.
Mlangeni succeeds in piercing through the cartilage of insider and outsider, photographer and subject dichotomies. He becomes part of the community he is interested in. This is evident in one particular image Afternoon visit Ola and I playing nipple (Photo by Sodiq) (2019). Here, Mlangeni is caught in an unguarded and cherished moment of delight and joy. This image gestures towards a dismantling of the gaze and the psychological anxiety that may come with looking and being looked at.
Taken together, stukkinne stories and The Royal House of Allure generate interesting associations; stukkinne stories documents family history through narrative, The Royal House of Allure frustrates accepted narratives of a nuclear family. Both bodies of work gently guide us towards contemplation of familial relations, of objects, of fiction and of intimacy but they don’t always move in the same direction. They are strung together by points of convergence and divergence, moving towards each other at various points and pulling away from each other at other points while also creating tension that points us to oppositions inherent in the works. This happens conceptually as well as in how the work is installed. Mlangeni’s investigations into notions of family and belonging are two dimensional and centre the figure while Adams’ explorations are rendered through abstraction, materiality and the sculptural. Mlangeni is documenting bodies in space through time, while Adams is tracing and piecing together residues left behind through time.
Place and placeness take on particular importance. Adams is drawing from the archive, Mlangeni is creating new archives. The text accompanying Mlangeni’s images, written in the format of a prose, offers a linear presentation of time and events, while that accompanying Adams’ work, written in the form of a poem, offers us fabulation. We are being asked to consider how the present is lived while also reflecting on how the past is ordered. As I’m thinking through the exhibition in its entirety, I see an image of two people walking side by side; walking together as an extension of thinking together, walking together as a collective practice, walking together as being together —Adam focusses on tactility and cultural hybridity, Mlangeni on intimacy and interiority and the two meet at the appreciation of liminality of familial experiences.
The presentation of The Royal House of Allure with Adams’ stukkinne stories is critical as it resists the work being relegated to narrowly defined criteria—although this body of work centres the LGBTQIA+ community, it is not only about the LGBTQIA+ community. Mlangeni is very clear that his primary concern is not the documentation of queer lives but rather that his interest lies in the different facets of the human experience where he engages the remarkably potent politics of the image.
It’s interesting to note how both artists engage with the object in their respective exhibitions. stukkinne stories takes as its companion Saarah Jappie’s poem What Kalea of the Cape Left in This World (1848), which is crafted around a specific record of belongings left behind by Kalea of the Cape, who we can assume was enslaved. A bed and accessories, one wardrobe, one long and one short chest, three painting, a clock, some kitchen tools, three tables and seven assorted chairs. Through Japie’s poem, objects, or more accurately records of objects, that otherwise lay inert, inaccessible and buried are resurrected and find new meaning. The Royal House of Allure also probes us through objects contained in the images – The only table, The couch (never empty), Birthday Cake and A shared sewing machine for inhouse designers – despite the absence of the owners of these objects, the objects become a declaration of presence, one that announces ‘I was here’ or ‘we were here’! This declaration subtly but powerfully works against erasure and forgetting.
Family (this simple word that carries so much in it) and the ease with which we use the word can trick us into thinking that it should remain uninterrogated. Maybe this is the point – how far back do we extend the limits of familial relations (1848)?, who is included in family (blood relations)? how do we craft the story of who we are in and through family? Can we imagine new ways of relating? Can we find new ways of solidarity and mutuality?
By deconstructing foundational elements of family and belonging, stukkinne stories and The Royal House of Allure offer us a contemplation on legacy, inheritance and heritage. The exhibitions allow us to reflect on the past holistically, considering inherited trauma, pain, suffering while also drawing on real moments of joy and humour.