In 2014, twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop became the youngest artists – and only siblings – to win the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art. Perhaps the most important part of the award is the chance to create work for an exhibition on the Main at the National Arts Festival. Thus in July last year, Unrest debuted in Grahamstown – to great interest – before moving on to Port Elizabeth, Durban, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein. Finally, the exhibition is set for Johannesburg, where it will show at the Standard Bank Gallery.
Key to the Essops’ work is their commitment to Islam. ‘The root to our inspiration is our belief, is the religion of Islam. It’s 100% of you; art itself is something very similar, so the two kind of … influence each other,’ they explain. Location too – another crucial factor if individual identity – plays a central role. At the heart of Unrest lies Cape Town, where the brothers were born and raised amidst ‘this melting pot of all these different cultures… a unique place and environment. This exhibition is to give people an insight to this beautiful place, to some of the issues that are troubling it,’ they say.
Unrest depicts locations familiar to the brothers, places ‘that we see every day, that are politically loaded,’ which they have captured using a new technique – ‘shooting in a sphere, so the whole landscape becomes our stage.’ Against this, the brothers perform, multiplied into a host of clones populating the urban landscape. This serves both as a critique of the stereotyping of Muslims, the blurring of individuals into an undifferentiated other; it is also a practical response to Islamic reservations regarding the depiction of life. From about 20 to 25 photographs, the brothers have selected roughly half, pushing their technique to create images both visually appealing and thought-provoking.
Unrest continues the Essops’ interrogation of their identity within a society, both local and global, and seeks to capture a growing sense of unease, of precariousness infusing society – ‘this tension, that could either explode or subside’ – affected by the ripples of local and international events – xenophobic outbreaks, escalating protests, the Arab Spring, and tensions in the Middle East and beyond, that continue to disrupt and dismay. The exhibition is rooted in this ‘kind of violence’, a reference made overt by the incorporation of weapons, ‘those typically found in South Africa… like the miners of Marikana, who charged the police with machetes and kieries; the okapi knives confiscated from students in schools…’
In its tour of the country, Unrest has stimulated much discussion, with the Essops sometimes personally on hand to further debate. Although they note that ‘we have our own intentions for the work, we have our reasons for it,’ the brothers welcome the possibility that viewers may come up with their own interpretations. ‘It adds another aspect to it,’ they say.