Zooming out of xenophobia: Turning the lens, curiously

By Gabriel Crouse 8 May 2015

Hasan and Hussein Essop zoom out and contextualise the most burning topic of the day, xenophobia. These rising stars from Cape Town focus on their hometown, and its Islamic affairs, in photographically ingenious ways. They realise an almost impossibly vast depth of field that allows the inquisitive viewer to enjoy human quirks in the foreground and scrutinise the background to fear of the strange. Reviewed by GABRIEL CROUSE.

James Oatway has taken the kind of photograph that will be remembered for at least a generation and possibly more. The stabbing, in Alexandra, of Emmanuel Sithole will be printed indelibly in the annals of South African history. The image provokes classical questions about the ethics of photography and urgent questions about the state of our nation. It is the epitome of journalistic photography. An exceptionally telling moment whose consequences both immediate and remote are beyond individual control has been arrested, preserved and printed out repeatedly. History caught in a flash.

If you are in Johannesburg and looking for “what next”, consider engaging with the photographic work of Hasan and Hussein Essop, the Standard Bank young artists of 2014, whose latest collection, UNREST, opened for exhibition on 21 April after years of preparation.

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Xenophobia names a problem that can arise when the interests of millions of people collide, especially when the collision is violent. In the search for answers the first step must be to find context. The problem is not uniquely South African. Islamaphobia and its obverse, militant Islam, dominate foreign affairs in Europe, the Middle East, the US and Africa. Billions of human interests are colliding with the kind of continental force that erected the Himalayas and wiped out almost everything that lived there. As a nuclear deal with Iran threatens to collapse and the banner of Islam is flown by killers and many of those killed in Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and (a single act of terrorism has probably drawn the most attention from the West of late) France (this list is exhausting but not exhaustive) we must not forget that xenophobia is a global threat.

We must also bear in mind, and on this front so many South Africans from the president down ought to feel ashamed of their oversight, that not all victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa have been of African origin. Moreover, Somali and Ethiopian victims might technically come from Africa, but could also identify with the Arab world long before an African one. UNREST rehearses, with overtones of satire, the kind of looting and murder perpetrated against non-African immigrants in the Western Cape. #WeAreAfricans.

Violence, at least mob violence, is a paradigmatically macho affair. The Essop twins, non-identical, take care of their bodies as the Koran commands. They portray their martial arts class, which follows an Islamic code, and highlight the defensive nature of this training. A man takes a blow to his chest unperturbed, implying a hard core. Another rehearses being knocked down. He kicks up from the floor. The twins are active in a neighbourhood watch, ready to defend themselves and others. One explained his leaning towards vigilantism, “I got tired of being a victim”. This defensive preparation is clearly connected to a perception of the latent stresses of inequality and desperation that many ignore until it is too late.

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The lighting of their photographs is mostly stark. The exteriors are shot under harsh blue skies and a glaring sun or in the dead of night. There are no sunsets. There is no romance. Women present themselves, when they do, as ghosts.

They depict a side of Cape Town far from the glamorous bikini-strewn, ginned and glistening shore. They call it “the backside”, where weariness is not optional. And you best be weary when looking at their work. With rare exceptions each face and body that you see belongs to one of the twins. It is the kind of disclosure that a reviewer must make with reluctance. Scarves, often over the mouth and nose, and other clever uses of costume, props and posture disguise their identity. Even when they are completely exposed they are easy to overlook since there are only two Essops and sometimes a dozen characters in a single photograph.

They can pull that off because each photograph is a digital composite of up to 400 still images, seamlessly interwoven. The rendering size reaches two gigabytes, twice as big as a full-length film. The detail is immersive. Noticing, without being told, that the same face is repeatedly rendered in an image encourages a sense of self congratulation, a trick understood. The ease with which one sees a Muslim before one sees an individual is also revolting.

At first they cited religious and ethical reasons for portraying themselves as various characters rather than models or genuine strangers. Later they acknowledged inspiration from artists like McArthur Fellow Cindy Shermann. She is arguably the world’s pre-eminent living art photographer. She takes pictures of herself. Using costume, make up and staging techniques she riffs off of and subverts the stereotypes that various path-of-least-resistance media depend upon as vehicles for their vapidity. Recognition – literally recognising – one’s relationship to a trope often involves humour. But it isn’t always laugh-out-loud.

In 786 (a numerical translation of one of god’s names) a drug-dealer leans against a wall, approached by fiends. To his left a man is wrapped in the star-spangled banner. To his right two shadows grow out of urine stains. A visual translation of ‘pissing your life away’ whose force derives partly from the ease with which it is overlooked. In Gang Wars men kitted out with guns and face-masks dash across the tar (and in one case up a two-metre wall) in flimsy flip-flops.

In Freedom Fighters a group of men work out in a public, open-air gym, in a park. They are dressed ala Boko Haram. A neat sign reads, “Jihad training from 8am-1pm”. One man is doing such a vigorous leg-raise that he is almost completely vertical, white pants billowing, chubby feet exposed. Another stares at the camera, arms folded and shoulders hunched in a miserable sulk. The training time is a more incisive joke. They’ll miss midday prayer every day! A Shell petrol station is subtly visible behind a tree about 100-metres away.

In each case the possibility of a perverse romanticisation of machismo, violence and antisocial independence is shut off by a richly contextual laugh. Using themselves as subjects the Essop twins access a room in which satire is satisfyingly funny and intellectually sharp.

The combination of self-characterisation and spacial distortion traces a lineage past Sherman all the way back to the Italian late Renaissance painter Parmiggiano. He painted himself as seen in a convex mirror, producing the ‘fisheye’ effect that has become a trope, nearly 500 years later. But even the widest angle lens (or roundest mirror) cannot make a rectangular room into the shape of an open book as H. and H. Essop do, nor can it capture what’s going on behind the photographer. Their quasi-panoramas are at once boggling, beautiful and a little paranoid. You are invited to look with eyes at the back of your head. The other deep lineage that the patterned, space-bending work traces is the geometric art of the Ancient Islamic tradition.

The twins innovate within the rules of the Koran. Three-D sculpture of a full human form, particularly the face, is forbidden. Their mixed-media centerpiece includes life-size forms of two men each placing a hand on the Koran. Their subversive and culturally rich garments conceal everything but the face. You will notice, if you look for a face, that there is nothing there.

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Family men, the twins cannot keep up on their art alone. Here too they have innovated admirably. Under the auspice of the Lalela Project they regularly teach poverty stricken youngsters art and life skills in the township near Hout Bay. Their larger workshops reportedly attract over 50 students.

Enlightenment, opening minds, seems to be the core of their collaboration. They were invited to elaborate on the rhetorical marginalisation of xenophobia against South Asian immigrants who were forced into South Africa as slaves and the Somalis, among others, who have followed their lead generations later. They preferred a different emphasis. “We all come from the same place. We all bleed.”

Rather than preach or condemn they exemplify uplifting, creative and challenging paths. Rather than turn a defeated or blind eye, they turn their lens curiously. They destabilise stereotypes. More profoundly they undercut the basic assumption of veracity and interpretive reliability that continues to bless and curse photography and film. They remind us that flash photography can be great, but flash reading never is. DM

Postscript. On the same evening as the opening there was a vigil on Constitution Hill against xenophobia. It was as intellectually empty as a hug. We sang, we danced, we looked at one another. It was enough that we were there, together. After trauma that kind of solidarity is necessary. And then there is a time to step apart, to activate the precondition for persuasion rather than indoctrination: ironic distance.

The work is exhibited at the Standard Bank Gallery in Central Joburg, in association with the Wits Art Museum, and is curated by Neil Dunbas.

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