by Karen Williams

With the prevalence of Islam-related news headlines, it is tempting to forget that the everyday still takes place in Muslim-majority areas: the going to school, the heartbreak, food and dance, and through the centuries, the constant production of art. This is the context shaping the work of groundbreaking South African photographers Husain and Hasan Essop.

Their collaboration has received increasing local and international recognition. The twins have exhibited across the world, and were also awarded South Africa’s prestigious 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Arts. Reading through the reviews of their shows, it is telling how often the critical response has portrayed their photographs as journalism rather than art. Critics tend to shoe-horn their creative work with its questions and moments of irresolution into existing, Muslim-related news headlines.

They refer to themselves as documentary photographers but the artistry displayed in their more successful pieces dispel the prosaic eye of the camera. The large pieces that fill the exhibition space are examples of extraordinary art, both meditation and provocation; polemic and joke. Their work process is painstaking and meticulous: piecing together hundreds of separate photographs, each a particular well-thought out moment, into final work that is a panoramic 360-degree image detailing lapses and time, people, characters and the documentation of landscapes. The two brothers are the only people who appear in the photographs, assuming different poses, personas and even shadows. It is what your eye could see, if only we could see better, and if we were able to see more.

“It is rooted very early in our concepts of art and Islam and representing figures in Islam. There were a lot of things that we needed to clear up for ourselves,” Hasan explained about their decision not to use other people besides themselves in their work. “The photographs also represent an ethical choice: we didn’t want to capitalise on people’s suffering. If you look at war photography, the photographer takes the photograph, which is important. But at the same time, there is also the suffering that is left behind.”

Blending a traditional South African Muslim upbringing in a country that has a strong, westernised youth culture, is natural to them, Hasan said. As he phrased it, they are “made up of all” the different personalities and images that they inhibit: wearing kurtas at home and then going out at night, finely turned out in clothes that draw on hip-hop culture. They are photographers deeply engaged in artistic, personal and cultural debates on Islam, and at the same time are reflecting the persona and cultures of people in their everyday circles – from preening teenagers to surfers.

“The idea was part of an internal dialogue and also a virtual dialogue. It had to do with me trying to be traditional and follow in my parents’ footsteps, but at the same time being part of Western culture,” Hasan reflected.

Behind the intensity of their work, there are also moments when the photographs are laugh-out-loud funny. One photograph at an outdoor public gym, with Hasan and Husain as preening young men prancing among the equipment, has the sign affixed: “Jihaad Training 8am – 1pm”.

At the same time, Islam is unmistakably the centrepiece of their work, with the brothers using themselves to interrogate religious debates, iconography and expressions of the everyday.

A lot of their work takes scenes and landscapes that are familiar, and then deconstructs them. As a viewer, there is the instant recognition of locating their work in modern art, with its recurring use of found objects: Andy Warhol’s tin of soup is the most recognisable in this tradition but it also includes the found objects of Judy Chicago, being both everyday and profound.

The Essop brothers’ body of work can also be located much further back, as part of a long Islamic artistic tradition in central Asia of meticulous miniatures prevalent in Persian and Ottoman art, with reaches in Chinese and Buddhist schools of art, prevalent during the 1400 and 1500s.

“We grew up in a home where there were no pictures and no family portraits,” said Hasan. This is not unusual in some Muslim homes, driven by a belief that Islam forbids representations of the human form. In their work, it has led to an inverse engagement: there are no people in their photographs, except for the two brothers being everyman and everywoman, and essentially creating a photo album of themselves.

Yet the belief that Islam forbids human representation belies longer artistic practices that have had the human figure as central to their art histories: Shia iconography, for example, as well as the Persian and Ottoman miniatures of the 1400/1500 and 1600s, which were often frontispieces for manuscripts. While a number of Persian miniatures represented myths and popular legends, such as that of the love story of Shirin and Khosrow[1], religious themes also recur in reproductions from artistic schools in Bukhara, Tabriz and Herat. Some Buddhist temples in Thailand have also been influenced by the reproductions of miniatures produced in China around the same time, which were often wall art, as opposed to manuscript illustrations.

Mentioning the context of miniatures is a stylistic impulse. Like the miniature wall art, the twins’ photographs, at their most successful, are extraordinary large pieces that draw you in, asking you as viewer to meticulously scan the complex composite pieces, challenging your eye to see where the joints are. It is a similar experience to standing in a hall of wall miniatures: you are dwarfed by the scale of a thousand little moments and simultaneously feel that you are part of the composition.

There is a particular resonance of absence in their work. Photographing themselves as the only humans in the landscape makes the viewer aware of all the missing that should have been there: razed grounds in Cape Town where their parents were victims of forced removals and home demolitions by the apartheid government; the approach to the slave prison on Senegal’s Gorée Island; the Palestinians visibly absent from their most holy sites in Jerusalem and the South African township street-corners populated by gangsters with the complete absence of ordinary civic life. As a viewer, the shadows and absences are people who are not present, but whose absences make them loudly and presently there.

“There is an absence-presence with things that are there and not there. A lot of things happen subconsciously and are not intentional (in our work). You can see it in every photograph. The absence of people always makes us conscious of our identity,” Hasan explained. “The absence can be anything: it has echoes of masculinity, but it can be anyone. It is also a comment on stereotypes and sometimes those stereotypes can be our own, or it can be others making the stereotype.”

Fittingly, the current exhibition is entitled “Unrest”: speaking both to their South African heritage where “unrest” was a familiar term used to describe the local resistance to apartheid. It’s a word that takes in exuberance, political hope, restlessness, beauty, youthful rebellion, organised grassroots struggles and sheer disobedience.

It was the theme of unrest that framed two of the more powerful pieces in their work, both installations looking at Shia practices and history, one framed by a painting of the founding fathers of Shia Islam. The second installation looks at the Shia Ashura procession.

Hasan says that a motivating factor around the installation of the founding imams of Shia Islam was a riff on how they were named by their parents, and how that related to Imams Ali and Hussain, the early Shia founders (and martyrs). The installation includes a painting of the two imams with their faces left blank. There are swords and weapons used in South Africa’s ratiep ceremonies as well as weapons of political and social violence in South Africa, along with a stylised wooden chest that often houses the ratiep paraphernalia. Even though the faces are blank, the Shia martyrs are instantly recognisable simply because this imagery is so prevalent.

“The idea came from ratiep and young men performing the ratiep ceremony,” said Hasan.

Ratiep is an extraordinarily spiritual ceremony performed by Muslim descendants of Indonesian and Asian slaves and political prisoners brought to South Africa from the 1600s onwards and who continue to live in the country. Through an incredibly fast beat of a small drum with accompanying music, participants enter such a deep trance that they can be pierced and lanced with knives and metal objects without it drawing any blood, or leaving any mark on the participant.

I look at their ratiep kist and their painting of the Shia imams stand out. The absence of faces on Imam Ali and Imam Hussain accentuate what we are looking at: centuries of Shia iconography has familiarised viewers with the recognisable curl of dark hair, the equally dark beard framing the face and the deep green scarf standing out from any background. The images are immediately understood, and so, too, are the deeper meanings emphasised by the blank faces: they represent the Essop twins who mirror the iconography of the most famous Shia martyrs. In turn, the blank, unpainted faces also evoke another fundamental belief of the power of the Hidden Imam, known as the Mahdi, who is waiting to reveal himself and usher in a period of perfect justice and harmony before the end of the world.[2]

I mention that while the various installations on Shia Islam are among the most powerful pieces of their current exhibition, it is unusual in focussing specifically on Shia beliefs and practices.

“It is controversial, with us being Sunni. When we were making it, we knew we were going to step on some toes. But we wanted to have a conversation and share the story,” Hasan said, continuing, “We are not glorifying it. There is a lot that they say that we don’t agree with, but we wanted to look at both sides of the story.”

The second piece is an installation that is based on the Ashura procession. It marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, and is a key commemoration for Shia believers. Ashura formed the basis of the shorthand understanding of the American-led invasion of Iraq, where the annual procession of blackclad believers, gathering in Karbala, were regularly attacked by bombers. Ashura, for me, has always come closest to the experience of release and transcendence I found in the “unrest” protest marches of my childhood.

In the lead-up to the commemorations in predominantly Shia neighbourhoods, there would be the build-up of anticipation: oil paintings hanging in windows and on streets, flowers and music everywhere. And then the crescendo of the days of processions: masses of people, moving as one. But, you were either an outsider, viewing it from above or afar, or, you were part of the crowd, simultaneously singular and collective. I spent years living in a central Asian Shia neighbourhood, and Ashura for me always harkened back to my childhood in the massive anti-apartheid demonstrations, being one of thousands of people, transcendent, absorbed, happy and completely losing your singularity.

The Essop’s installation is extraordinary: each brother in two separate television screens, they individually recreate the movements of an Ashura participant, but with so much concentration and fervour that a viewer forgets that you’re looking at just one person, and instead the twins appear to be in a crowd.

It is at this intersect between belief and practice where they locate their work. And looking at their photographs, it is this meeting point that makes it most successful: the intensity, the popular shorthands and a ribald debate distilled into photographs of two men trying to understand religion and the politics within religion.

Hasan & Husain Essop, Self-flagellation, 2014


For this article, I consulted the miniature illustrations in the book Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Persian Miniatures: Miller Graphics, Distributed by Crown Publishers, 1979

All images courtesy of the artists and Goodman Gallery

[1] The Shirin/Khosrow myth is so foundational that in Abbas Kiarostami’s film, Shirin, the viewer loses nothing of the story by having the camera fixed only on the faces of women watching the play unfold, monitoring their reactions.

[2] It is interesting to look at photographs of former Pakistani Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, and his very stylised image, evoking the early followers. In terms of Shia iconography, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini also constantly refused to confirm or deny whether he was the Hidden Imam, while at the same time relying on the power of that possibility.

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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Melanie Singhji. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.


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