Being 21st century visual artists is a challenge enough on its own! But add trying to tag “ambassador for your faith” on to that and that’s exactly the mission of Hasan and Husain Essop. In a world filled with media that revolves around villainizing the Islamic faith and labeling its followers “extremists”, the Essop’s are continuously seeking to challenge the representation of their religion, and work predominately through the medium of photography to reconstruct this perception.
Images, such as clothing washed up on beaches, the incinerated remains of a bombed car and suitcase-carrying refugee families fleeing, are propelled around the world by the (predominately western) media of the horrifying casualties of the Syrian civil war. Along with this, issues such as ISIS and the ongoing “war on terror,” became the starting point for the exhibition. Not only for the distressing content but also because of the Essop’s knowledge that the fleeting nature of current media meant that it is here today and gone tomorrow. This exhibition was therefore a way to really analyze what we have been shown by the media of the conflict, the refugee crisis, and the resulting portrayal of both victims and perpetrators.
The brothers are intensely aware of their own position in the world, as young Muslim men. In appearance they fit the stereotypes. A passing comment made by Husain was that when he travels internationally, he travels clean-shaven, a decision informed by previous experiences with police, border officials and prejudicial travelers. This awareness of the space they occupy makes the work deeply personal, and yet universal in the way that it calls both the viewer and the media to check. They are afraid, afraid that the situation will get worse, that society will get more and more divisive and that their children will grow up experiencing more discrimination than they have themselves. Their subject matter is simultaneously both personal and political, giving it a narrative that resonates both on an individual and community level.
The Essop’s use of the language of photography is an attempt to connect their message with as many people as possible. Their photographs are particularly striking in the way that they highlight how images are constructed, and in turn, the effect this has on society. Painstakingly weaving together multiple images to create a single image, this level of control ironically mimics the subtlety with which the media is able to circulate images perpetuating a particular perception about Muslim people and other minority groups. The realization that these are carefully and intentionally fabricated images, forces us to realize for a moment that our own perceptions could potentially have been similarly fabricated. In using photography as their primary medium, not only do they have to deal with the ethics of representation that face all photographers practicing today, but the orthodox view that depictions of the human form are haram [forbidden], further complicates their position. However, they feel that they have managed to find ways of negotiating these complex terrains, predominately through their decision to photograph only themselves.
Whilst there is a definite gravitas to the show and the themes it tackles, a number of images contain a wry humour, especially in the way that they re-work well-known western icons of pop culture such as the Hulk, Batman and Spiderman, inserting Islamic cultural items to highlight the caricaturing and stereotyping of Muslims, and the relationship American culture in particular, plays in shaping the world. This they feel is not only important in drawing the viewers in, but also in giving their work a bit of character, allowing a side of their own personalities to shine through.
Speaking with Hasan and Husain, it was clear that this particular exhibition is an important and special moment for both of them. The twin brothers, who were the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners in 2014, have been exhibiting with Goodman Gallery for ten years. Much has changed for both of them during this period. Beginning with their decision to work collaboratively in 2006, they have continued to push the boundaries of their photographic technique and expand on the themes embedded in their body of work in the years since then. They both now have families of their own, and have had to readjust to changes in their working relationship, particularly with Husain and his family relocating to Saudi Arabia a year ago. Refuge is the brothers’ third solo exhibition with Goodman Gallery, and there is an artistic maturity that is starting to show through their work, especially in their increasing confidence to expand into other mediums such as film and installation, which is presented alongside their photographs. The use of a tent presented as a precarious raft shows a sensitivity to the subtleties of working with found materials, suggesting both the dangers facing the refugees as they escape over the sea, and the minimal shelter that is often provided when they reach the land. Not only does Refuge show an increasing mastery of their mediums but also in the way they stretch, combat, and play with concepts.
Finally, it must be mentioned that the brothers are both full-time Art educators, and while this gives them the financial freedom and stability to provide for their families, it means that they do have to sacrifice time and energy from their practice. They don’t begrudge their day-jobs however, rather they are appreciative of the relieved pressure to make art that sells. They now have the freedom to hone in on their concepts without facing pressure from an art market that is quick to dictate what work artists should make. Knowing this, there is a feeling that their role as educators may have even begun to influence their role as artists, especially how their art takes on an educational slant in itself, seeking to inform and reshape misconstrued perceptions regarding Muslims. Perhaps what they have identified is the possibility that ignorance is a major factor behind the polarising fear we see increasing in society. If they can inform that ignorance, perhaps the growing fear will also diminish.
Check out Refuge at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until the 19th of August.