Whatever shall we tell our children?

refuge

YOU might not like me when I’m angry. Hulk Habib by Hasan and Husain Essop. Lightjet C-print on archival paper.

COMIC HEROES HAVE, since they were first thought up and drawn in the late 1930s, had a very particular place in a child’s values. The values of a white child, that is. Why? Because these great and noble chaps who don cloaks and masks or turn green with self-righteous rage, in the name of the underdog, are all white, like the hypothetical kid in question. What this means to a child who is not white is so exclusionary, it causes all of this world’s values to crumple. Twin artists Hasan and Husain Essop have the temerity and sense of style and purpose, to take this on, directly.

Once you are gripped in the gaze of a Muslim Batman, Spiderman and Incredible Hulk, all resistance crumbles in this potent exhibition of constructed photographs engaging, in the Essops’ inimitable directness, with the complexity of being Muslim in the contemporary world.

Along the lines of Pieter Hugo’s approach in his Nollywood series of 2009, the Essop twins engage a political reality which has become dangerously clichéd in the wake of 9/11 and the thrust of hysterical Islamophobia. Like Hugo’s work, the Essops’ images are all posed: these are not press images but art, confronting bias from within.

And the result by and large will shift your equilibrium.

A young Muslim man kneels on a beach strewn with thick fleshy bits of kelp and lots of discarded empty plastic bottles. He cradles a child’s doll in his arms. As you look at it, you experience a double take. This is a reference to a 2015 press photograph of the drowned Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, on a beach in Turkey. It went viral, presenting a face of xenophobia that was about a lot more and a lot less than what the hateful rhetoric was espousing. It’s an image which grabs you by the throat and stifles your breath. Before being a refugee, this young man was a daddy.

The portraits of the three Marvel comic superheroes, however, dominate the space of the gallery’s main display area with a quiet violence. It may make you think of how children’s heroes need a cultural makeover, giving children who are not white access to heroes who look like them.

It may frighten you: the unflinching gaze of Spiderman in his keffiyeh, the Hulk with a taqiyah and Batman with Arabic words cast across his mask, depending on who you are, are confrontational. The potency of these characters in a Muslim framework is explosive and profound, while it’s easily digestible and direct. And the litany of reflection on the values of children – the ones who hold the superheroes in thrall – resonates through your head.

Also in the gallery’s main space, there is an installation. A little dinghy. Some baby clothes strewn on the floor. Two poles or oars, with the emblem of the Syrian flag. “Are we there yet?” is emblazoned on one little crumpled t-shirt, a clichéd reflection on children’s classic impatience in road trips, which has been turned tragically upside down, reflecting the terror of refugees travelling to a new world which may or may not accept them.

Other works, such as the single channel HD video Refuge, articulately place you, the beholder, in a pilgrim-like situation. Many people seem to surround you. The atmosphere is peaceful yet threatening by the very quantity of people in the frame. They move gently forward. You feel smothered.

There’s a “No Muslims” and a “Muslims Only” sign punctuating the show, as well as a flag printed in a typeface redolent of Arabic, but English in its proclamation that Islam doesn’t kill, people do. In another image, a beheading is imminent. These much more obvious engagements with the values of the show tend to weaken the show’s thrust with their unambiguous confrontation of dangerously shallow prejudice and cliché.

It is the works which force you beyond the stereotypes and into the heart of a young parent or child who has hate shoved into his or her face because of his or her culture and origins that will leave you shell-shocked and ashamed of this world’s values.

  • Refuge by Hasan and Husain Essop is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com
  • For a commentary on the iconic nature of contemporary political photographs, read this column by Geoff Sifrin.
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