Essop brothers’ exhibit probes stereotypes, violence and anonymity

The winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for 2014, Hasan and Husain Essop, are exhibiting Unrest, a new body of work that largely comprises their signature-style photographs and two installation pieces.

The element of unrest is not new in the visual language of the Essop brothers. Their work is characterised by various forms of social restlessness.

In the current exhibit, disquiet and conflict aren’t merely implied default motifs but their subject matter. In light of recent political events, from the Arab Spring to Palestine, the circulation of ignorant perceptions around Islam and Arab people have, to a large extent, calibrated the world’s indifference.

It’s this gross misrepresentation of Muslim identities we see strategically being toyed with and reappropriated by the Essop brothers. The artists insert themselves as subjects in their images – “the Muslims”. As Muslims themselves, their self-insertions play interesting subversive roles in an attempt to disavow and assert themselves.

The homogenous Muslim
The play on their appearance as clones that can be reproduced almost infinitely, and the absurd generality of “all” Muslims is thought-provoking. At best, their pictures show how liberal societies preach peace and personal liberties – and then sponsor violence and deny the individuality of others.

It is said that violence works to erase our human faces. Well, that is one aspect of it. In the installation Two Imams, we see two bearded but faceless individuals wearing green head wraps. They are framed by weapons – okapi knives and pangas – and a sunset. The work is presented as a shrine-like object. The viewer walks directly into the image that stares at us with its empty face.

The Promise is a similar installation. Two faceless and limbless men gesture a truce. As they reach out to one another with their invisible hands, as if settling their deal, a Qur’an maintains dignity between their comic performance.

But what can emptiness promise? Despite the demanding nature of Two Imams or the intriguing curiosity The Promise invites, the materiality of absence that pervades them creates an interesting puzzle.

The point of this anonymity is that it extends beyond claims to physical appearance. Once the marked subject is denuded of all human content and recognition, he is vulnerable to degradation.

This precariousness is suggested in Athlone Superette, a photograph of the Essop brothers staging a looting of a local corner shop. It is reminiscent of black South Africans’ violent and destructive xenophobic attacks on foreigners and their businesses in 2008.

In Night Watch, in a desperate attempt to curb ghetto crime and robbery, the neighbourhood watchers size up arbitrary strollers and assault them.

An eerie significance
This concentration of violence isn’t just about the primitive aggression of the masses, but also the culpability of the elite benefit system removed from our perceptive reach.

In 786 and Drug Den, concerns about safety and societal contradictions are raised.

In Mandela Park, interesting contradictions emerge. Two telephone poles connected by a black wire stand between two koppies on either side of a contour suggestive of Table Mountain. Beneath this imagery, shacks spread up the girth of the koppie of Mandela Park.

At this moment Mandela Park has a feeling of suburban silence, yet the screaming shame of destitution pervades as if it’s a nameless place. On the edge, the figures of the Essop brothers loiter inconsequentially, in boredom.

Though some concepts are probably best resolved in the brothers’ heads rather than in the work, Unrest unveils the scars of a deeply wounded and nameless society, and is a show worth seeing.

Unrest is showing at Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, until January 21 2015.

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Athi Mongezeleli Joja
Athi Mongezeleli Joja
Athi Mongezeleli Joja is an art critic based in Johannesburg, South Africa. A member of the art collective Gugulective, he is currently studying toward his MFA at the University of the Witswatersrand on the critical practice of late critic Colin Richards. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Mail and Guardian, Art Throb, Contemporary And (C&), Chimurenga Chronic, and Africanah.

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