Husain and Hasan Essop: Brothers in art

2013-10-20 06:00

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Twins Husain and Hasan Essop create unique, thought-provoking works with double the impact

Photographs were not allowed on the walls of the Essop twins’ childhood home in Rylands, Cape Town. ‘If you have photos showing the eyes of a person you’re chasing the angels away,’ their mom said.

It’s a practice not uncommon in Muslim homes as photographs are frowned on, particularly ones showing the eyes. It could allude to an elevation of status of the person in the picture, they believe, and even be likened to a form of idol worship.

So it’s ironic that Hasan and Husain Essop’s award-winning work features themselves – and in many instances they are bravely confronting the camera… showing their eyes.

‘We decided to use ourselves instead of others in our work. This way, if we need to answer to anyone, we alone are judged,’ Hasan says.

‘It is still risky but we feel it’s ethical. We do not show others in poverty or expose people for our profit,’ Husain adds.

And the twins are being rewarded for their efforts – they’ve just been announced the winners of the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art.

This means their work will be displayed at several galleries across South Africa, gaining them the kind of exposure afforded to previous winners of the prize such as William Kentridge, Nicholas Hlobo, Mary Sibande and Brett Murray.

‘If you come into my house, there will be a photo of my wife and myself on our wedding day. It won’t be big but it’s there,’ Hasan says.

‘But I can also appreciate the teachings – take images of celebrities a teenager might stick up on their walls, for instance. Celebs are elevated to godly status.’

‘So while some may view our work as wrong, it has a voice,’ Husain adds. ‘There is so much happening in this world, we want to create work that gets people talking.’ It’s this minor form of rebellion and the way they use themselves to relay issues in Islam that have made people take note.

The twins always knew they wanted to be recognised artists one day. By age 10, art became an obsession and they’d draw every day, trying to outdo each other all the time. ‘We have always been very competitive,’ Husain says.

Both are now teachers in the field – Husain teaches arts and culture and design at Rondebosch Boys High and Hasan teaches visual art at Wynberg Boys High.

They also travel extensively to photograph their work, going to places such as Dubai, Amsterdam, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Palestine.

‘When we travel people ask us the most basic questions about Islam and I think, “How do you not know this? You’re around Muslims all the time,”’ Husain says. ‘But

I realised people are afraid to ask questions about cultures and religions different to their own. Our work allows us to talk about the negative and positive in ourselves, our beliefs and the world.’

Hasan says their work is not so much about getting across a message as it is about opening debate. ‘It’s Islam in a post-September 11 world,’ Hasan says. ‘It’s reflections on culture, heritage and tradition.’

‘It’s amazing,’ Husain interjects, ‘we’ve found that other cultures also relate to our art – those things are relatable to everyone.’

Their trademark style is to use their surroundings, bodies, costumes and poses to both document what is seen and create a story.

‘All our work is planned very carefully,’ says Hasan. ‘We conceptualise ideas in journals, discuss it at length, prepare and then go on site to photograph the vision.’

And their parents? What to they think of their sons’ career? ‘They understand our work is important and love that people enjoy it.’ Hasan says. ‘They’re very supportive – but our work doesn’t make it onto the walls in their home!’

More about the Essops

You’re both artists and teachers. What are your biggest differences?

Hasan: I’m the neat freak, the more serious realist, the pessimistic introvert.

Husain: I’m the messy, outspoken one.

Hasan: But with everything else, we are very much the same. We laugh at the same jokes, speak a lot alike, think in much the same way.

Husain: You should see us at 30 Seconds! We don’t even have to finish a sentence and the other one knows the answer.

What is the best thing about working with your brother?

Husain: The fact that he can take my ideas and make them better than I ever thought they could be.

Hasan: Sharing the work load and the responsibility. He’s always trying to better himself and this helps me do the same. Being twins makes the process easier.

Which artists inspire you?

Husain: (Photographer) David Goldblatt, who I respect greatly, and (photographer) Mikhael Subotzky, who achieved great things at a young age. I also adore (artist and printmaker) Diane Victor and (artist and writer) Sue Williamson.

Hasan: (Artist) Jane Alexander. I admire her work ethic and her humble nature – she rarely speaks about her work but rather allows her work to speak for itself.

What do you never get tired of hearing?

Husain: That we have achieved a lot for our age, having the kind of recognition that other artists take years to achieve.

What is your advice to young aspiring artists?

Husain: Be hard-working, take your work seriously, harness your ideas and push yourself to achieve in the area you are passionate about.

Hasan: Follow your dream, know what you’re speaking about, embrace criticism, be conscious of your surroundings, be cutting edge. Set a standard and maintain it.

See their works at www.goodman–

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