Figures and Fictions: Hasan and Husain Essop

Identical twins Hasan and Husain Essop talk about their Cape Town upbringing and the Islamic faith that underpins their vivid and theatrical brand of photography

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Video Transcript

Apartheid simplified this place into these Manichean oppositions around these two constructions, blackness and whiteness. Photography came here right in the 19th century. Very early on there was a rich photographic heritage in history here, but three dominant modes of representing people prevailed.


The ethnographic – that’s the old habitual way of regarding people of colour and so-called native populations as an extension of the flora and fauna you might say. The second one was documentary photography. Documentary photography became dominant here during the struggle years. It was the genre that could tell the outside world what living conditions in South Africa were like. But the third that is also very important is portraiture. And portraiture probably is the oldest way through which people have been photographed. Those were the photographs that were sent out to the world press, published in books, that were circulated, that were used in the anti-apartheid movement in London and that’s a powerful, powerful tradition.


I approached the V&A with an idea of putting on a group show of South African photography now. We decided that we wanted to showcase work that was being produced by photographers living and working in the country now. We started looking at the range of photographic pieces that people were doing, and began to see that the figure was really important for many photographers, because human beings really have been the subject of political aggression and political oppression in this country. And the figure has been the locus for thinking through many questions, both about the past and about the present.


This place feels like paradise doesn’t it? I mean here we are, surrounded by the most exquisite lush foliage, the light is soft, there’s this dapple of reflections on the table. It’s just exquisite; Cape Town just has that quality. This whole basin, this intercity basin, was really the area I grew up in and the area I went to school. It’s filled with extraordinary memories. You might think that this was a really exquisite and beautiful place to grow up in and that one would have an ideal childhood, and no doubt some people did, but for me this place was traumatic and fraught from the start.


I grew up here in the 60s and the 70s. I left here in 1979. Even from when I was very, very little I was always aware of the fact that one’s way of negotiating the place was over determined by the social and political structures that taught you who you could talk to, how you could talk to people, how you could behave, who you could play with. I loved my nannies; they were like second mothers. My mother worked my whole life and I was brought up by nannies. But their relationship with the nannies’ children was always fraught, so sometimes the nannies’ children would be allowed to stay in the town and we would play together as children. But whenever you wanted to go out – say you wanted to go for an ice cream, or your mum said, “oh let’s go to the beach” – you had to leave the nanny’s child at home, because she wasn’t allowed to the beach. People live in situations, in all sorts of blinkered ways and with a lot fear. And one the things the South African government managed to do was to inculcate a cultural fear.


I went to art school in South Africa right here from 1975 and 1978 and the art school is adjacent to these gardens. This is the place where we used to come and sit and have tea and one of the students who came to Macalas, the art school of the University of Cape Town, was Ruside Jamee, the man I eventually married. We met when we were undergraduates and part of the painful memory of this place is that he weren’t able to come and sit here.


In the 1970s in South Africa interracial marriage, interracial sex, interracial social communication was forbidden, it was illegal. You were not allowed to drink with people of colour and if you were found of be in a sexual relationship with someone from across the colour bar you were prosecuted and would go to jail.


We couldn’t drive on the roads together. He would hitch on the motorway and I would drive past by in a car and pretend to give him a ride if we were going to visit people. But we really told very few people about the relationship, it was a secret relationship. People at the art school didn’t know except for a couple of our lecturers who were really good friends. Our families didn’t know.


I think I’d always known that I would go into graduate work in England, but an added dimension to leaving was the fact that I was involved in an interracial relationship. To admit, in London in the 1980s, that you were a white South African, even if you were involved with a black South African, didn’t exonerate you from a deep, deep sense of shame. My way of coping was to block South Africa.


In the 90s, after the release of Nelson Mandela, I remember that incredibly powerful moment sitting in London watching on television the release of Mandela it was really a very, very moving moment. And then it took some time in the 1990s, gradually coming back here, integrating ourselves slowly back into our own family lives here and our pasts here and beginning to understand that, that allowed me eventually to begin to reengage with the place.


It was around 2007 that I was approached by a commercial gallery in London to do a group show on South African contemporary art, which I did and was really the first engagement intellectually and artistically with this culture. During the research for that show I became aware of the extraordinary wealth and variety of photographic practices that had flourished here and we have photographers here, really the most senior in the show, someone like David Goldblatt, who was a very, very important figure in the 60s and 70s and onwards as a documentary photographer thinking and rethinking the project of documentary photography.


At the other extreme of the age span you have a young photographer like Sabelo Mlangani. Somebody who really is engaged with the history of documentary, works in black and white, but really comes from a different generation and tries to think about what those conventions can do in order to relay something of the poetics of the contemporary South African life.


The range of photographers on the show is broad. All of them share an interest both in the social and political realities of South Africa today and particularly the challenges that face it after democracy.

 But actually South Africa has always been very complex with many different language groups, and population groups, religious practices and spiritual practices, ancestral worship, living alongside Christianity, Islam, etc. South Africa is an extraordinarily diverse place. Really it’s not a culture in black and white.  


Hasan and Husain make extraordinary images of the community in Cape Town where they grew up which reveal both their fascination with popular culture and their deep Islamic faith.

Here the Essop twins talk revealingly about their unusual artistic background  and explain how their Islamic faith informs the unique techniques they use to create their photographs.