Husain Essop is talking about the opening of his new exhibition: “Somebody overheard a lady talking to a child. The child asked the mother, while looking at the Missile Crisis photograph: “What is that? What are they doing?” She replied: “This is what they use to blow up Israel.”
Says Husain: “What she read into it was a bit problematic, but we can’t blame her. We are allowing her to create her own meaning and understanding of what she sees. But [her response] shows her environment and background.”
So, with an anecdote told by Husain, starts my interview with the twin Essop brothers — wonder kids of the visual art scene in South Africa. The pair is not afraid to take risks with their humorous retouched photographs. Having worked in Cuba, they now bring a show called Halaal Art to the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The work reflects their outer and inner journeys from the Cape to Cuba and on to Europe.
The twins graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2007 and in 2009 they undertook their Cuban residency — this coincided with the inclusion of their work in last year’s Havana Biennale. They also facilitated a workshop on invitation from the University of Hamburg, Germany.
Halaal Art extends the artists’ preoccupation with the role of the individual in society, in particular the space that Muslim youth negotiate in a secular environment. Inspired by their experiences abroad, the images depict the brothers in various carefully staged locations and poses in what they deem to be meaningful settings.
This year marks 150 years of Indian presence in South Africa and for the Essops this has special meaning because they trace their roots back to Gujarat. As someone who is familiar with that heritage I can relate to their interest. It is a community that is particularly conservative when it comes to contemporary art that uses the body as subject. As I discovered during the interview, this is precisely why they have chosen to use themselves as the medium.
The Essops have a lot to account for in their work. They use images of Muslims with missiles, animal slaughter, the veil, Nazi concentration camps, mosques and “weapons of mass destruction” — all highly charged in the context of contemporary experience.
Major local galleries have started to buy their work for permanent collections and they received some media coverage when Sir Elton John purchased their work when he visited Cape Town last year.
Do you wear your kurtas when you go through customs?
Husain: No. I came back from a month in India and they gave me a lot of hassles. When I got there I thought they were going to welcome me with flower petals: “Wow! A brother from another country has come to visit his heritage.” But instead they stopped and questioned me: “Who are you? And what are you doing here? Let me see your visa for Dubai!”
But when I entered Mumbai I could see why there is a problem. These heavy Pakistani extremists were out to destroy tourist buildings and places within India, to stop tourists, to destroy the economy or something like that. One of the hotels we stayed close to was the Taj Palace and half that building was blown up.
Given these experiences as Muslims travelling in the contemporary world, how does it relate to your work?
Hasan: We try to create work in such a way that it allows the viewer to create his or her own meaning and understanding. To question what they see on television, through the media, and what they hear. Because in Germany that was the only perception they had, that of an extremist view of Islam. It was amazing — when they saw our work they were like: “I didn’t know there were all these other sides to Islam.”
Why have you chosen to use yourselves as subjects?
Hasan: In Islam it’s controversial to use the figure, including the eyes, and you should have permission from other people to use their bodies. The problem with war photography is that photographers capitalise on other people’s sorrows. Some photographers can be criticised for that. If they’ve been using a subject that maybe was in prison, you know, and they make money from it, does the prisoner get any of that money? So for us we kind of took on a role, so if there is going be any criticism it will fall on us. It was also a way of looking at ourselves, looking at our own identity and questioning our own heritage — being Muslim, being Indian, being South African.
Husain: That’s what our mother said — that if criticism falls on to anybody, she’s glad it falls on to us and that we take ownership of it. I think that was basically why we chose ourselves. And we also speak of the split personality within ourselves. That’s why our previous work was made up of so many [characters] all wearing different costumes representing the different facets of one’s self. That’s why in this body of work we try to make it personal. But you won’t see a lot of eyes in our work, we always try to disguise our identity. Sometimes we cannot, but most of the time we’ll be conscious of how much of the eyes are showing when we’re editing.
Who are your influences in the art world?
Hasan and Husain together: Marcel Duchamp, the Chapmans and many others. From a very young age we were obsessed with Salvador Dali. Our work is quite surreal, in the sense that in some photographs it is impossible for it to be reality. It’s fake — there are five of us. So I think there is an underlining surrealism.
So you are Muslim Surrealists?
Hasan: We sometimes look at the photographs as dreams, a memory or dream we have experienced and we try to recreate it.
Husain: Many times it has happened to me where I would be dreaming about a specific photograph in the morning and I would discuss it with my brother and we’d set out to do it as best as we can. A lot of works we’ve done have come out of daydreaming or hardcore dreaming — it’s amazing. There is a hadith that says the only place that the devil, or shaytaan, can’t enter you is through your dreams. So whatever you dream is true.
The works from Havana and Cape Town look strikingly similar. What was your intention?
Hasan: We had to make a body of work into a concept and theme when we were invited for the Havana Biennale in March 2009. We used the opportunity as a platform to make a new body of work. We saw how we could tie in the relationship with previous works we’d made. Once we were in Cuba, we thought of a previous photograph of us standing on the shore in Cape Town. So when we went to the pier [in Havana], we had a sense of leaving and a sense of arriving, looking on to another country, leaving your own country. I think it has something to do with xenophobia, people coming and going.
As Muslims, was there any conscious relation in your work to Guantanamo Bay?
Hasan: Yes. We thought that if we found a sign saying Guantanamo Bay it would have made the greatest shot, but unfortunately we didn’t. We were always conscious about Guantanamo Bay and that’s why, you know, ironically, Cuba was just always the perfect place to be. We spent a month there. The first few weeks were setting up for the Biennale and once that was set up we took our own time to discover and explore Havana. And that’s when we found the pier and we thought: “Wow, it looks exactly like the one we shot in Cape Town. Let’s do something similar.
Is your intention to question the way Muslims and Islam are represented in the media?
Hasan: The basic message is to show how easy it is to manipulate the image, how easy it is to create a formula and allow the viewer to take in exactly what you put in.
Given the association of Muslims with aeroplanes, what is the intention behind your use of the planes you found in Cuba?
Hasan: We found a plane — we thought it was quite appropriate, this whole idea of Islam and planes. Also the idea of being on a plane and taking on a journey.
We placed it in a room with missiles that we found, because of 9/11 and the  Cuban Missile Crisis [between the Soviets and the United States]. In the exhibition we try to confuse the viewer — we don’t always show the location of the image, so you can think it’s anywhere. In the photograph the guys are celebrating the fact that the missile is going to be launched somewhere, but they are not necessarily terrorists.
Husain: In Germany, for the photograph Berlin Wall, we used the wall to represent the fact that it was a unique part of history, Germany’s history, and how they once dominated the Jews. But now in Palestine you’ll find a wall triple this size that has kept the Palestinians in. We played with the idea of the walls in Germany and we make a direct relation to history according to Jewish history. That’s why the wall there is so appropriate.
Your work is overwhelmingly dominated by themes that relate to Islam or being a Muslim. What are you saying about that?
Husain: You have extremists who believe Islam should not form a relationship with modern society. What we’re trying to do is say that modern society and Islam can coexist — there is going to be friction but it’s up to the individual to know where to draw the line. You don’t want to be displaced from people, you don’t want people to look at you as the other.
In the art field you seldom find Muslim artists or Muslim people becoming artists. It’s an undiscovered field among Muslims, so for us it’s quite a test and it’s difficult to portray.
Why did you use the history class for art classes in the Halaal Art photograph?
Hasan: When I was in madressah, Islamic school, I was whacked with a cane. It symbolised something within teaching and we found it appropriate. The reason for the Mandela poster and other historical posters is that in government schools in Cape Town, when they run out of classrooms because there are too many learners, they would use the history class for art classes. So we used the history class to teach “Halaal Art”, which, in essence, would become history one day.
Husain: With the photograph Feeding Scheme we played with the idea of slaughtering animals, especially for the poor for Qurbani [the slaughtering ritual during Bakri Eid]. The chairs are small, so it’s the children we are feeding. We actually did this with a Muslim Women’s Group, and for us it justifies the slaughtering of the animal when you see the children’s [happy] faces.
Hasan: With Four Fathers we photographed a kramat, a holy site for Muslims who came from Malaysia and India. It overlooks the city of Cape Town as though protecting the city. These are our forefathers who were very holy and were believed to have special powers.
What is the underlying theme in the work?
Hasan: The underling theme, which will always be prevalent in our work, is death. If you are conscious about death it will make you religious. They always say if you are a God-fearing person you will fear death, which is why in our work we show the extremities, because we are conscious of death.
Halaal Art runs at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, until April 1. Yunus Vally is a graphic artist and documentary filmmaker. His documentary, The Glow of White Women, won the best feature documentary award and the audience award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in 2008