Johannesburg - Things have changed since the last time I spoke with Hasan and Husain Essop. It’s almost two years after their ground-breaking Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year exhibition – a stirring, edgy, youthful take on what it’s like growing up Muslim in South Africa – but as they make their return to the Goodman Gallery next month, it appears that things are getting more serious in their lives, and more brave in the images they’re making.
Their latest solo exhibition, titled Refuge, emerges as tension strains harder in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis unfolds in increasing horror, and the terrorist attacks, such as the recent one in Manchester, continue to disturb the West. Today they are South African artists who find themselves caught in a global crisis, and their new work, as a result, delves deeper than they have before into these layers of Islamophobia, displacement and the meaning of Islam.
In our discussions (held between breaks in their nine-to-five jobs as teachers in Cape Town) the artists reveal to me the personal toll that the past few years have taken on them.
“It’s traumatic. Sometimes I will just break out into tears,” Husain says. “I don’t know what to do any more. As a Muslim you don’t know what is real, and what is constructed.”
It’s why, his brother Hasan tells me, they have this urgency to construct their own images and attempt to re-balance the misrepresentation of their community in the media.
“I think your faith is tested every day,” Hasan says. “It is very frustrating that people are taking such a beautiful religion, and really destroying its image. You see that women now are afraid of wearing hijab, because they are scared of being teased and boys are wearing the kurta less, because they don’t want to be identified as being Muslim.”
Conversely, and ironically, it is fuelling radicalism, Hasan says. “Terrorism is making ignorant people more ignorant. It is fuelling more extremism. But these so-called Muslim people are not Islamic to me. It is very upsetting that this is being done in the name of Islam, and we are constantly having to stand up for the religion, and keep on defending it. It is tiring.”
At their forthcoming exhibition, due to open mid-July, the pair returns with one of their signature panoramas, called Mass Grave. At just over 2.4m wide, and composed of 100 different images, it pieces together all the excluded angles to “tell the full story of the space”, Husain says.
At the gallery, visitors will be fully immersed in the image – a life-size depiction of a Muslim burial ground in the Western Cape. In the panorama a lone figure, dressed in a Moroccan kurta, presides over the simple rocks that demarcate where a Muslim body lies.
“In all our works, the presence of death is very important. What happens after death is obviously a large part of our religion, and that graveyard, you could say, is the final Refuge for the Muslim.”
Untitled Graveyard is, like their previous panoramas, stirring and painfully immersive. But it’s also full of the sort of life, and light, that often eludes our discussions of death. It seems to reference a more welcoming hereafter, seemingly the paradise that the prophet Muhammad offers in the afterlife, and which might come to his followers here on Earth after all of the Islamophobia, and terror, has passed.
Beyond the graveyard there is a counter to all this seriousness, another ray of light. What do two outspoken brothers do in the face of this new struggle they and their families are facing? In the Essop households they become heroes, that’s what. With titles like Hulk Habib, Saudiman and Dark Imam, the brothers have produced a spectacular additional series of images of masked figures which stand in stark contrast to their other work.
“The exhibition is quite loaded, and quite heavy, so the superhero stuff brings a nice sense of relief. We as kids grew up with these Marvel characters, my children are growing up with these Marvel characters, but I find that the villains are changing. We see that this generation of villains are all dealing with the Middle East in the way they are handling things.
“So when we decided to do our series of heroes we explored the big characters like the Hulk who, as I am getting older, represents to me Suni Muslims; the black Batman represents to me, maybe, Shi’a Muslims – and the conflict between these two groups. The Nick Fury character, which we titled State Fury, represents the Middle East, and the Spiderman character to me kind of represents the Saudi government. In a way it speaks about the way Hollywood represents Muslims, where Muslims are portrayed as very real, and very threatening.”
After years of constructing the way they see, and portray their world, it is as if this new reality they are facing has compelled them to make a new kind of work.
“After completing these images it has motivated me to work more, to push the content,” Husain says finally. “I feel this new work is actually just a starting point. I want to tackle history as it’s going. I’m now asking what needs to be added to this. We will change Islamophobia to the point of ‘hate crimes’ when our images are seen, and when people can see the other side.”
Refuge opens at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on 15 July. Head to goodman-gallery.com for more information.
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