In this extensive interview, Igshaan Adams shares his personal history, his practice and his experiences from the first TUB residency with curators Carolyn H. Drake and Fleur van Muiswinkel.
Carolyn H. Drake (CD) & Fleur van Muiswinkel (FM): Could you tell us about your first introduction into the arts?
Igshaan Adams (IA): Right until the last day of high school I had no idea that art was a career option for me. I had never been exposed to the art world. There was no art at school, so my plans were to study hospitality actually. I wanted to become a chef because my family has always been doing catering jobs. So I applied for hospitality and it was three times as expensive at visual art so I just went with visual art because it was cheaper. I did a graphic design course at the time and that was my introduction. My family has always been creative. My father used to draw me and my siblings very realistically with pen and I remember thinking as a child it was like magic, unbelievable that someone was able to do that with a pen and I wanted to be able to do it myself as well. My aunt also used to draw images on our bedroom walls, which constantly evolved and changed throughout my childhood. I shared a bedroom with my two aunts, my brother and my sister. My aunt started drawing nearest to her bed and it grew to cover the entire walls of the bedroom.
IA: I was never exposed to the great masters, although in South Africa at that time we did have Vladimir Tretchikoff who was popular in terms of his prints and they are still found throughout homes in South Africa today. I was, however, influenced by the Xhosa people who used to come into our neighborhood. We would trade our old clothes for little black ceramic pots or the woven baskets they would make. I used to love these baskets so I would keep all of my old clothes so that I could exchange them for a basket when they next came by. We had an old palm tree in our garden and so I would take the leaves and make little carpets or try and mimic the Xhosa baskets.
FM: And since studying art in university, to what extent did other artists influence your practice?
IA: There is a strong tradition of male, often homosexual, black artists in South Africa coming from poor economic backgrounds who work with fabric and materiality in their work like Athi-Patra Ruga, who comes from a fashion background and then there’s Nicholas Hlobo whose work I looked at while I was studying. I loved his work and still admire it very much. My lecturer introduced me to Nicholas’ work because he saw that I was going in that direction. And of course I discovered things in the library, looking through books. The Arte Povera movement is an important reference for me, with Alighiero Boetti and the maps that he made in Afghanistan. Louise Bourgeois also had a huge impact on me, not only because of her formal qualities and the wide range of materials she used, but her installations are so emotionally charged and related to her history with her father.
CD: In what way can you relate to the psychological events from childhood that are so important in Louise Bourgeois’ work?
IA: When I was a young boy I completely grew up in my brother’s shadow. He was always better at everything; games, socially, he was a natural leader. But in terms of school and drawing I was able to beat him. Art gave me a sense of identity. It was my own and for the first time I was no longer my brother’s brother. That’s where I got my identity.
FM: How did that identity develop throughout your practice?
IA: It was very important for me to fix something through my work. So that is what I do a lot of research in as well: identity formation, Jacques Lacan and other psychoanalysts who research the formative years in your life and the idea of the ego and the alienation of the self. These are concepts that I delve into in my work. My first body of work came out of a performance I did with my grandmother called ‘Your ma sie poes’ (Your mother’s cunt). It’s an expression that is commonly used in colored communities in Cape Town, a slang expression that shows when someone is really upset. In a negative way it is very much associated in South Africa with colored culture. It was also my way of saying Fuck It at the time. For the installation I borrowed furniture from friends and neighbors. I had looked so much within my own domestic environment, both physical but also psychological environment. I made 8 self portraits: installations using my grandmother’s clothes, my grandfather’s robe, the furniture that was in the house at the time I was growing up, I took sections of the upholstery, etc. But then I took furniture pieces from the immediate community and created a living room space with portraits on the wall. My grandmother was seated watching television, watching her favorite soapy while she’s crocheting which is what she would do when she was at home. It was about the nurture component of identity formation.
FM: It seems like many young artists need to go through that process in the beginning to set the foundations for their practice. It comes up a lot when I do studio visits with artists at the Academy. You need to first look at your immediate surroundings, your own history, your own experiences and upbringing and then process it through making work. Do you feel like you have gone through that chapter and are now moving on in your work?
IA: Absolutely. If you look through my portfolio you can see that progression. I used to be a realist painter, I loved portraits, I painted in oil on canvas, and then slowly it evolved into much more abstract work and quite materially and object based. Then, in the exhibition ‘Vinyl’ I took sections of vinyl from people’s homes and titled the work according to where I found it. I dealt with their stories because they had a relationship to my story. And then I went beyond that and took symbols like the South African flag, which has a connotation to even more people. So it was always about starting with the personal and taking it to the universal, and if you’re able to be completely honest with yourself as an artist you are able to touch upon something that is universal, because people recognize honesty. Getting to that point of honesty has always been my way of wanting to balance my personal stories with universal ones.
FM: Do you feel you are at that point now? Have you found a voice or a language that is somehow more universal by using references and quotes from the Quran?
IA: Islam is important to me so it’s always going to show up in the work. I do try for not everything to be so Islam centered. So if you look at one of my latest bodies of work with the Rorschach drawings, there was only one that had a direct Islamic reference. Then I started working on the tapestries that do have the Islamic calligraphy, but I do try to balance things because I’m not only gay, or only Muslim, or partly Christian, so all of these different aspects that relate to my identity and interests. Then of course there’s the dream of putting opposing forces together, for example realistic and abstract.
CD: The title of the exhibition refers to the performance you have done with your father. Can you explain how the performance Please Remember came about?
IA: I have done the performance several times now. For me, it is about the idea of death before dying, remembering or mourning someone you love or care about while they are still alive. In my life I was confronted with having to cut people out for my own wellbeing. This feeling of loss can also manifest itself in other forms, for example due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. The performance is also loaded with personal history. The relationship with my father has always been difficult. My childhood was bittersweet and I grew up with a lot of abuse and violence around me. The performance has allowed me to fully forgive my father and cleanse me from my negative feelings towards him. Following the first performance, I truly understood what the Bible means with ‘forgive and forget.’ I was able to forgive my father and felt a feeling of rebirth and renewal.
CD: Did that feeling of rebirth or renewal come back the second time you did the performance?
IA: Not as strongly. For me, this also touches upon the notion of performance and whether it should ever be repeated or restricted to just one time. I absolutely think it should be repeated. I know that it might not be as strong for me, but every time I have repeated the performance I know people have taken away from it. The following times it’s not so much about me anymore, but hopefully it’s an experience I can give back to my audience. The performance can provoke an intensely emotional reaction but for my father this doesn’t seem to be the case. He’s very precise in following the steps of the cleansing ritual and does them in a matter of fact way. It’s almost like he’s washing dishes! But I like that about it because he’s not trying so hard and that’s why the aesthetic in the performance is so makeshift.
FM: How do you see the relationship between form and content?
IA: I usually choose a material based on gut, and not always because of what that material brings forward. In the scarf hangers for example, I will always convey its original function in the title so that people know its historical function in the context of it being an artwork. But sometimes I just see a form or color and just realize its potential. So not everything is conceptually loaded. I feel that if I were to focus on using only materials that have meaning then it becomes meaningless or pretentious because you can’t force meaning or creativity.
FM: Could you tell us a bit more about the work Unseen (with the scarf hangers)?
IA: The scarf hangers are objects that I came across in an area in Cape Town called Rylands, a neighborhood close to where I grew up. It’s where most Muslim people live and the biggest mosque is there. People were selling lots of different kinds of scarfs on them in the street outside the shops. I’ve always wanted to use the scarf, the hijab, in my practice, in ways that I haven’t seen before. Originally I thought of weaving them like I do with the tapestries, but I liked that these scarf hangers had metal inside of them and I could bend them in different shapes. I kept the visual reference relating to the scarf but by not working with the scarfs themselves I felt like I moved away from a literal reading. It feels so forced otherwise, without a soul.
FM: The visual reference is indeed very strong. You approach the material both from a conceptual side but you also allow yourself to play with form and push the object further.
IA: In terms of playing with the material, I’ve enjoyed the process of bleaching the hangers as well. By bleaching them, cleansing the material of its color and changing its appearance, it now fits a lot better in the space. My intention was always to find cloth and play around with its form. However, even though I’ve completely removed the scarfs, there is still a clear reference to them and what they represent. Nonetheless, they are still very present in the work.
FM: How do you select the quotes from the Quran for your tapestries? Is there a relationship between the choice of color and the meaning of the prayers?
IA: Google is always a starting point. I try and look for specific prayers that mean a lot to me. The orange tapestry is called Ayatul Kursi: it’s a verse called The Verse of the Throne from the second chapter of the Quran. It’s supposed to be the most powerful one in terms of protection. This is a prayer that many Muslims decorate their house with. In the prayer God asserts his dominion over all beings.
The blue and colorful tapestry is called Surah Al’Ikhlaas and contains my favorite prayer. It’s the shortest prayer and has such a beautiful meaning. It’s about purity, uniqueness and sincerity: notions that are very important throughout my practice. What I love about it is the sincerity, which is something I actively seek in balancing form and content. In terms of choosing the colors, I first make the drawing of the calligraphy and subsequently I will choose colors that express what I feel the prayer means to me.
CD: Why do you reuse the same prayers in several works?
IA: Arabic is not a language I fully understand, it’s not a language I speak. I learned how to read when I was a child but never understood what I was reading or saying. It’s often tricky to match the Arabic with English. Every time you Google an Arabic word you find different translations. The meaning also fluctuates every time I make a new work in order to fully embody the prayer. The poetic power of a language doesn’t always run parallel with the poetic power of another language. Spoken words can also have a different effect depending on the place or moment in which you say them; in a Mosque amongst many other people, or alone at home. You can never fully explain the experience of language. The way we use our language, the choice of words, it’s so personal. Language can truly act as a veil. When we repeat the prayers every day they almost become meaningless so by focusing on each word individually in my practice they become meaningful again. It is believed that the language in the Quran is alive and that it has healing powers when it is spoken. The balance between feeling the vibrations of the sounds and registering the meaning of the words spoken is what I’m interested in.
CD: Leading up to the exhibition you were at A Tale of a Tub on a residency. You brought some materials with you from South Africa and started a new site-specific installation. You had time to try out new ideas and mentioned that failure was an important element for your residency period. How does the idea of failure manifest itself in the works in the exhibition?
IA: In the work Bismillah for example, this idea of failure is very apparent in how things are coming undone: the unraveling of the tapestry and the fact that I started weaving something that was not completed planned. What fascinates me about Bismillah is the combination of completeness and incompleteness. I want to allow for mistakes and failure and experimenting with the material. During this residency I was able to take the tapestries from a two-dimensional into a three-dimensional space. Even though I have always considered them to be sculptural this is the first time I can really show them as such.
CD: What made this residency in Spangen, or this complex, different?
IA: The history of the building as a starting point is so beautiful, I love it. It contains the site-specific rituals of cleansing that I work with in Islam. That’s what made this particular space special to me. When I walked into the space, the openness, the pillars, the physical space itself had a big impact on me. I was immediately so excited to get started. The physical building really had the biggest impact. I also realized the difficulties of working in the space but that also became the challenge. But that’s what’s exciting and so much fun.
FM: You’ve made a very strong gesture by adorning A Tale of a Tub’s walls with prayers. Why did you choose to place them directly on the architecture?
IA: Because I was so impacted by the space when I first arrived. I immediately realized I wanted to work site specifically even though I recognized the challenges of the space. It has such a strong presence and history. I tried to think of ideas that somehow highlight the space or merge with it instead of working against it. My initial idea was to put up a loom with a tapestry in process, like a net that you could see through. After I tried it out, I didn’t like it at all. But I still wanted to activate this particular space in the middle of the bathhouse because it’s the space that I’m most drawn to and also where the performance takes place. I wanted to subtly highlight the space and the architectural forms and so the beads that I’ve used are of a light material that creates a bit of a shimmer. I wanted to decorate the space with the most important prayer, Surah Al-Fatiha. It’s the first chapter in the Quran and it’s the first Surah (chapter) recited in each cycle of prayer. It also serves as an opening for many functions in everyday Islamic life. Indirectly you could say the work Surah Al-Fatiha (2015) relates to the historical function of this bathhouse.
CD: Is there anything you discovered during your residency at A Tale of a Tub that you would like to take further?
IA: Yes, for example placing mosaics on the wall was something completely new for me. I like working site specifically, being in the moment, living in the space and experimenting with it. Searching for a connection between the type of work that I want to make and how it functions in the space. It could easily become overdone so the challenge is to keep the balance between form, content and context. This is definitely something I would like to continue exploring.