Hasan and Husain Essop
by Katharine Jacobs (April 2009)
Fraternal twins Hasan and Husain Essop graduated from UCT's undergraduate program a mere two years ago, in December 2006. Yet to date, their work has been selected for 2007's Spier Contemporary exhibition, reached the finals of the 2008 ABSA L'Atelier contest, and as I caught up with Hasan while writing this Artbio, the brothers were jetting off to Cuba for the Havanna Biennale, their work selected to be shown alongside the likes of Jane Alexander, Sue Williamson and Dan Halter.
Since graduating, the Essop brothers have been working collaboratively, producing digitally composited photographs, picturing a profusion of twin clones, engaging in various pursuits and altercations. Dressed in designer gear, traditional garb and army camo, the twin's doubles, triples and multiples act out contradictory stereotypical identities. At first glance, the images are playful, colourful and dynamic; full of comic overacting and physical antics. But as Sean O'Toole points out in an article for German publication 'DAMn∫18', the brightly coloured outfits of the minstrel troupe played by Hasan's clone in Pennsylvanians are owned by 'a notorious Cape Town gangster', and the site where Thornton Road is shot, is also the scene of an apartheid-era massacre. (O'Toole 2008: 93). These subtle signs of violence point to something more sinister; this is merely not a joyful celebration of Homi K Bhabha's notion of hybridity.
Twins, appropriately, feature in Freud's analysis of the Uncanny, and undoubtedly, the twin's multiple doubles and doppelgangers point to psychological conflict. Raised by traditional parents, but growing up in cosmopolitan Cape Town the twins' work dramatises what is, for them, an inner tension. 'You have this split personality within yourself because of the different lifestyles [you're] exposed to', says Husain, in conversation with Yazeed Kamildien.
Works, such as Pit Bull Training (2007) evidence this conflict more explicitly. Shot in Cape Town's illegal dog-fighting arena, the photograph shows two pit bulls braced to fight each other, Essop clones waving a fluffy toy dressed in American colours between them like a red flag to a bull. The conflict between East and West then, is an internalised one; the Essop clones playing both victim and aggressor. This seems fitting, the irony of global East/West conflicts, after all, that we are probably all a lot more similar than we might imagine.
'Our work questions global and local hegemonies. We explore the influence of Western popular culture and the distorting effects it has on existing religions and cultures. Internal conflicts are expressed through performance.
Most importantly, our work originates from a history that is confined to a specific area, a faith that is universally shared and a critical understanding of the media and modern technology.
As twin brothers we share an identity, a personality and a family. This unique bond that we share enables us to confront and address similarities and differences within a personal and a global context and open up debate around religious, cultural and social correspondences and conflicts.' (August 2008)
On using their own image in their works: 'This is our experience. We don't want to make an objective statement. We don't want to put words in other people's mouths. This is how we see the clash between east and west, which exists simultaneously in our bodies. It's our struggle'. (Hasan Essop, in conversation with Yazeed Kamaldien)
'While the references are distinctly Capetonian, the work engages more broadly with a discussion over the stereotypical representation of 'eastern' and 'western' value systems. Also in question is the role of morality within religious tradition and secular society... the Muslims they depict are diverse, have distinct musical and cultural heritages and arise from Asian contexts, as opposed to supposedly Arabian origins only.'
Yazeed Kamaldien 2008
'Everything is intentional, from the respectful supplication of the worshippers photographed in a mosque to the grammar of the fashion. The upshot of this is that the brothers' work can at times come across as heavy-handed, their photographs the blunt instrument of cultural ideology. But this is also a cruel overstatement of things. Hasan and Husain Essop are youngsters fresh out of art school, their art - like their thoughts - the product of naïve optimism and passionate argument. If their work is weighted by religious zeal, it is also rescued by it; in particular their conviction that their pictures can deconstruct stereotypes and affirm values. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, what's wrong with that?'
Sean O'Toole 2008:88
'The Absa finalists to watch are the photographers Hasan and Husain Essop. The Essop brothers are twins who repeat their own images in digitally enhanced photographic mise en scènes exploring their life-issues in Cape Town with an emphasis on their experiences as Muslims.'
Staff Writer 2008 ': 19 Mar. 09
The brothers are currently enrolled as a 'collaborative pair' in the Postgraduate Diploma program at Michaelis School of Fine Art, working towards a solo show at the end of the 2009.
2008 saw the Essops become finalists in the 'Absa L'Atelier' competition, having submitted separate works as the competition did not accept collaborative works.
Their collaborative work also appeared on 'Power Play', in June 2008, a group show at the Goodman Gallery Cape.
They were also represented by the Goodman Gallery at Basel Art Fair, Switzerland and Johannesburg Art Fair in 2008.
In 2007, their digitally composited photographs appeared on 'Loaded Lens', at the Goodman Gallery Cape, and their work was selected for Spier Contemporary 2007, on the Spier Wine Estate, Stellenbosch.
Speaking on the direction their new work will take, Hasan suggests that their visit to Cuba will precipitate a widening of their concerns from the Capetonian context, to include issues faced by Muslims globally. Whilst at the biennale, the brothers hope to interact with the Muslim community there and gain a first-hand understanding of the challenges facing those practising their Muslim faith in a country under socialist government.
Hasan also indicates that the brothers intend to begin tackling issues of Africanness, using Yoruba masks in their performative photographs, an appropriate direction perhaps, given the significance of twins in Nigerian culture.
Another possible direction could include the use of some of the photographic material that Husain collected on his pilgrimage to Mecca in 2006.
Born 1985, Cape Town, South Africa
Live and work in Cape Town.
2006 B.A. Fine Arts in Photography (Husain), and Printmaking (Hasan), University of Cape Town.
2008 'ABSA L'Atelier', ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg
'Power Play', Goodman Gallery Cape, Cape Town
Basel Art Fair, Switzerland, Goodman Gallery Booth
Johannesburg Art Fair, Goodman Gallery Booth
2007 'Spier Contemporary 2007', Spier Estate, Stellenbosch; Johannesburg Art Gallery and Durban Art Gallery
'The Loaded Lens', Goodman Galley Cape, Cape Town
2006 Graduate Exhibition, Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town
2007 Invited to run workshops with District Six youth in conjunction with 'The Loaded Lens' at Goodman Gallery Cape
Kamaldien, Yazeed 2008. Hasan and Husain Essop. Cape Town: Goodman Gallery Editions (brochure).
McKenny, Virginia 'A Selective Journey' in Pather, Jay 2007. Spier Contemporary 2007. Africa Centre, Cape Town, p16.
Minnaar, Melvyn 2006. 'Art graduates of what, for what' in The South African Art Times, December
O'Toole, S. 2008. O Brother. In: DAMn∫18
Staffwriter. 2008. Western Cape 2008 Absa L'Atelier opens with little fanfare' in Art South Africa [online] available: http://artsouthafrica.com/?article=615 Last Accessed:20 March 2009
Van den Berg, Clive 'Fanakalo: Introduction to Spier Contemporary 2007' in Pather, Jay 2007. Spier Contemporary 2007. Africa Centre, Cape Town, p7.