YOU MAY FIND it difficult to believe that the glossy corporateness of the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg could be challenged to its very core. There are only a few days left in the Johannesburg season of the exhibition of Igshaan Adams, the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art, before it travels the country, but it’s a few days in which you won’t regret a trip into the city centre.
Indeed, you will emerge from this exhibition with a religious sense of quietude. The award traditionally – since the early 1980s – has come with a mantle that takes a youngish artist (the ceiling mentioned in potential recipients’ ages was 40) and presents them with an opportunity of national exposure. Of late, decisions taken around this winner have faltered in that this is often not the winner’s first big national experience, and as a result, something of a cavalier approach to the project was evident. But you won’t find this here. Even the catalogue feels like a sacred text.
Adams (b. 1982) has hosted solo exhibitions in several contexts in Cape Town, so far in his career, and in 2015, his work was shown in Rotterdam, but there’s something fierce and exploratory about this exhibition, something that touches the core of what makes performance and visual art segue together, that will grab you in a way that you could not have anticipated. But further to all of this, When Dust Settles, a contemplation of death and life within a Muslim context feels like the artist has spent intensive energy in figuring out what to do with this exhibiting opportunity.
Even if you are not a seasoned Adams aficionado and do not know his work at all, even if you do not subscribe to Islam values, you will emerge from the sacred spaces that he’s constructed here, with a sense of greatness and of epiphany. It feels on so many levels, as though he has pulled out all the stops of his current thinking and belief systems, to create an exhibition that is the pinnacle of his career thus far. And it is magnificent.
But it’s a magnificence that takes you unawares. Weaving and winding and layering texture and fabric, thread and fabricated patterns printed on plastic lino, Adams creates a series of rich palimpsests that urge you to take off your shoes as you enter the space. Suddenly, the pristine shininess of the gallery’s floors and its western white cube concept is completely dismantled and you may wish to prostrate yourself in worship, because of this.
You may think about the woven nature of the pieces, and consider the work of Nicholas Hlobo – a previous winner of this award – but here there is something different. Something deeper: Filmed footage of his performed work Bismillah (2014) features here; it’s a revealing yet respectful consideration of the way in which a dead body in Muslim tradition is washed before burial. The body in question is Adams’s. The person washing it, his father. To religious Muslims, this piece and this thing has been considered an outrageous provocation. Adams is taking on his traditions with an informed fervor which is potent and important. As it is brave.
The exhibition breaks all coda of how we think we should look at art. It’s immersive and the works bleed into one another as they concatenate gently and with enormity through the space. And as you emerge from its confines, you release: this is not an exhibition. It’s an experience. It’s a meditation. It takes artmaking to a different plain: an ancestral one.
- When Dust Settles by Igshaan Adams, the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art is at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until September 15. It travels to Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, from October 2018 until January 2019; Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery in Bloemfontein, from March until April 2019; the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum in Port Elizabeth from April until May 2019; the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, from June until July 2019; and the NWU Gallery in Potchefstroom, from August until September 2019.