Fighting Islamophobia through art
Artists seek to address prejudice surrounding Islamic identity
HUSAIN Essop remembers the day he was ordered to get off a train in Hamburg, Germany, and questioned by police who suspected him of being a terrorist.
“I got on the train and many of the people thought I was going to blow it up,” says Husain.
“For the first time in my life I put fear into people when they looked at me.”
Husain was in Germany with his twin Hasan last year when the incident occurred. The artists were there to conduct art workshops for refugees.
“It was during the time of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, that this happened. The passengers on the train had the police follow us. It made me very upset inside.”
It wasn’t the first time the Cape Town-born twins experienced Islamophobia in Europe.
“We’ve been randomly selected at airports, pulled aside and interrogated,” says Husain.
“When we walk in the streets we’ve had people spit in front of us. We’ve been declined help at the counter of some stores. When we’re standing in a tram, we’ve seen people separating themselves from us and leaving a huge gap, even though the train is so full. It’s happened countless times.”
These incidents “of hate” have provided the inspiration for their latest art exhibition, Refuge.
The award-winning artists from Rylands are on their way to Joburg to stage the exhibition, which seeks to address prejudice surrounding Islamic identity in the secular world.
Their work, featuring photography, sculptures and videos, will be at the Goodman Gallery, Rosebank, from July 15.
From the perspective of young Muslims living in the Islamic diaspora, the Essops have produced new works that investigate mainstream media representations of the refugee crisis according to the perception that there is increasing misunderstanding and fear of Islam in the secular world.
“The exhibition is more a collection of things we’ve encountered, especially from the media, and what’s been at the forefront of the media,” said Hasan.
“Our work specifically looks at the Syrian crisis, the refugee crisis, Isis (Islamic State), and the impact it has had on the world, and especially the negative impact its had on the image of Islam.”
The exhibition comprises 10 stills, four portraits, a video piece and two installations.
“We’ve stayed true to our process where we use ourselves in our photographs,” says Husain. “All our images have been shot in Cape Town, but we’ve made it look as if we’re in the Middle East.”
The 31-year-old twins, who have full-time jobs as art teachers, have been working on the Refuge exhibition for two years.
“It took a lot of hard work and scouting for perfect locations – one of the images looks like a guy in Palestine.”
They hope their exhibition sparks debate among South Africans.
“Islamophobia is getting worse,” says Husain. “After the Germany incident I was so happy to come home because here we live in a country tolerant of all religions and race.
“With all this Islamophobia, people are blatantly showing they don’t like you. When I came home from Germany, though, I couldn’t help but fear that I was going to get hatred here as well. There is so much hatred around the world.” Hasan agrees. “Islamophobia is dividing people. There’s a clear left and right. The right has been getting a lot more support.
“People like Dutch politician Geert Wilders are preaching hate speech and being applauded. When people in high positions justify clear human rights violations, it spreads down.”
They’re unsure of the feedback their exhibition will receive. “I’ve shown a few people some of the images and it has stirred the pot a bit,” says Husain.
“Because it’s dealing with such sensitive topics, like the Syrian crisis and Isis, people tend to react negatively. I’m so scared, I actually don’t know what to expect.”
Hasan expects some people to misread the images.
“We try to make it clear in our images that we don’t support Isis and don’t think Isis is anything Islamic.
“Our work is focused on creating a conversation that these terrorist groups are not Islamic and we’re creating that awareness to start a conversation.”
Hasan and Husain Essop, Untitled (House), 2017.
Hasan and Husain Essop, Usual Suspects, 2016.
Hasan and Husain Essop, Untitled (Wall), 2016.