Diversity

Kim Gurney

The Doppelgängers

Hasan and Husain Essop are twin brothers who make art together. Their composite photographs show the observant Muslim brothers doing things in various Cape Town settings. They have made photos in Hout Bay, where they teach, also District Six, where their father lived before apartheid redrew the map of the city.

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PART 1

We are driving down a dark Southern Suburbs road on a Cape winter’s night, the road slicing a neat dividing line between the childhood checkpoints of twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop (29). These names have traction on the local contemporary art circuit and increasingly an international one too. It all began, however, in an understated way. Hasan, the elder twin, describes his past as “a very standard way of growing up”, surrounded by traditional spaces and conventional neighbourhood norms. These arguably helped forge a down-to-earth nature that, despite early professional acclaim, still distinguishes both twins’ personalities. It also primed a lively openness to a larger world that is both their charm and vulnerability. 

We are travelling back in both geography and time to the first family home. Hasan is driving his compact Honda Jazz following a weekly extended family gathering, the lengthy table fuelled by generous food and chatter. We have come from Penlyn Estate to our right, a neighbourhood near Athlone. This parental home is where Hasan lived until a few years ago and where Husain still resides. To the left is our target destination, Rylands, the ambit of the Essops’ childhood world until they finished primary school.

Hasan's dark moustache and trim beard match his brother when we meet, their physical likeness easy to confuse. Their individuality is perhaps best asserted in the creative work they pursue separately alongside their photographic collaboration - a style they call "a cool recipe", as each brother brings a particular nuance to the end result.

The back-story to this “standard” way of growing up, however, is one of forced displacement—a narrative that is not uncommon to the greater area southeast of Cape Town called the Cape Flats. It is bounded by the M5 highway to the west, N2 in the north, Weltevreden and Lansdowne Road to the east and the False Bay coastline in the south. According to the Census 2011, the most recent, 583 000 people reside in the Cape Flats Planning District (Athlone, Manenberg, Hanover Park, Ottery and Philippi), out of a total population in the city of over 3.7 million Capetonians. Yunus Essop, father to the twins, was forcibly relocated in the 1970s by apartheid legislation to Rylands from District Six, a racially mixed suburb in the city’s heart. District Six was in 1966 declared a whites-only area. House demolitions followed shortly after. About 60 000 people were eventually displaced. Yunus’ own family roots, as well as his wife Rashidah Essop, are from the Indian village of Manobas. Through the instrumentality of the Group Areas Act of 1950, Rylands was designated for “Indians” while the central urban nodes were designated for whites. The spatial legacy of segregation still informs much of contemporary Cape Town’s urban morphology in what some scholars term “neo-apartheid”.

Both are married fathers, with one small child, and they work for the same organisation. Husain is more extroverted and takes the evident leads, while Hasan fuels that trajectory.

In contrast to Penlyn Estate, which boasts more contemporary and spacious houses, those in Rylands appear smaller and packed closer together. People mill about outside, lots of cars are parked on verges, backyards are conjoined. One garage door is half-open with some chair legs visible and human legs too. But it is not all conviviality. Crime is an issue—“the wrong people walking into the wrong people,” as Hasan puts it. After navigating a few more streets, we pass by the former family home. It is remarkable for its lack of fencing in contrast to its well-secured neighbours and is, unusually, set back from the road. 

Hasan is wearing his trademark peak cap, which he sometimes sets back to front. His dark moustache and trim beard match his brother’s but his voice has a slightly more laid-back register. Their personal lives are in synch: both are married fathers, with one small child, and they work for the same organisation. Husain is more extroverted and takes the evident leads, while Hasan fuels that trajectory. Their individuality is perhaps best asserted in the creative interests they maintain on the side rather than their photography, which they practice as a tethered duo represented by one of the country’s top dealers, the Goodman Gallery. Husain has an archive of black and white photography dating back to student days that expands as he travels. Hasan is a draughtsman at heart, with a mark-maker’s interest in printmaking and painting. Husain’s studio is a computer; his conversation flows as smoothly over their work’s conceptual underpinnings as the intricate technical aspects of post-production. Hasan’s studio is a spare room; it includes an easel, sketchbooks and a prayer rug. His words are more personally invested in the issues at stake: “We are telling our life story. The art is kind of like an alter ego. It’s these other personalities that are being expressed.”

PART 2

His childhood street is looking more rundown these days but Hasan livens up as we turn the corner and come in full view of a large open common. He points out a wide post that served as wicket in endless games of cricket. “This was our life,” he says. Rylands and Penlyn Estate was also, more or less, a circumscribed horizon line for the brothers until they enrolled at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, a prestigious art school attached to the University of Cape Town (UCT) and located in the central city, effectively resetting those boundaries. They were 17 at the time.

As we navigate alongside Hanover Park, Hasan extends this analogy of an enclosed childhood world to apartheid urban planning that locked people in. We are only skirting the edges of this neighbourhood now but if we ventured in to the middle, we may have trouble coming out, he says. “Once you were in, you were in. The highway separated the area—it was very smart planning. It kept the people where they were.” He is rueful as he comments, noting also how these limited access points now create congested traffic for residents. South Africa is a rapidly urbanising country that is grappling with reversing the spatial legacies of its apartheid past and this includes sprawl, fragmentation and separation, according to a 2013 paper on the street as open space by urban planning scholars Fabio Todeschini and David Dewar.

Their signature style features images of themselves replicated in different poses in skits they perform situated in carefully selected landscapes

Nowadays, however, the Essops are inventing their own horizon lines in their photographic artwork. Their signature style features images of themselves replicated in different poses in skits they perform situated in carefully selected landscapes. In post-production, they stitch together photomontages that essentially document aspects of their own lives while simultaneously speaking to a broader audience. That audience often concerns split identities—unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the creators are twins interested in notions of doubling. Their work travels well to immigrant communities, they say, generally grappling with identity issues. This duality arguably makes their work particularly pertinent to a city like Cape Town too. It is often described as representing two worlds, and this is more than simply spatial. People tend to isolate issues rather than seeing the historical, temporal and ethical interconnections—what Edgar Pieterse, writing in Counter Currents (2010), has called “an intertwined crisis of identity, economy and ecology”.

Husain and Hasan supervise class activities which are part ofof the Lalela Project. Calling themselves "a mobile artbox,", they encourage learners of Hout Bay High to have fun and be creative.

Their home neighbourhood features strongly in the twin brothers’ latest artworks. Sites from our night-time drive are recognisable from ‘Unrest’, a travelling solo exhibition for the Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) award for visual art, a respected three-decade-old accolade that grants winners a stipend to create new work and premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. This solo exhibition extends their usual mode of photography to include video, installation and even performance.

We cruise slowly past the Bismillah Cash & Carry, its signage a transliteration from Arabic for “In the name of God”, which appears in a photograph titled 786. Across the street is the facade of a Drug Den, and over there a shopfront where, in Athlone Superette, a staged xenophobic skirmish between Somalis and Bangladeshis takes place. We also pass the local high school that Hasan and Husain attended as learners. Hasan speaks about the school with ambivalence since it started to define him and gave him a streetwise nous but also lacked sufficient resources. “It taught me to live by the streets, and it crippled me too,” he says. The school now focuses on art.

Hasan references, in an earlier interview, the influence of this neighbourhood where he grew up and its relevance to a more militant character that always popped up in their work but they never really dealt with until now.. “I come from a neighbourhood where crime is a big problem. You are bred to be tough. At high school, you had to fight to stand your ground. I think that because we live in this environment, I have naturally grown this 'militant' side even though I have a gentle side, a fashionable side, an art side.” This duality is captured in their exhibition ‘Unrest’ too. “It is feeling the tension of South Africa that is shaking, that is about to explode, that is not going to explode,” offers Hasan.

High school students collaborate on an project as part of the arts programme run by the Essop brothers at Hout Bay High. Despite the difficulties that many students face of noise and power outages at home, they are determined to do well, says Hasan.

PART 3

The Habibia Soofie Masjid is lit up in an ethereal lime green glow. It is an unworldly sight, impressive and welcoming at the same time. This is where Hasan and Husain attended crèche and for some time this was also their local mosque, closest to home. “The Sufis are romantics,” says Hasan, adding that it is where they got a lot of influence. “Other mosques are black and white and they are colour.” He means that they deviate from strict tradition. Hasan points out how the mosque has no visual representations on the walls, in line with strict Islamic conventions. The main issue is that only God has the power to create; there is also the related concern around idolatry. This often translates into an aversion towards depicting the eyes in both historical Islamic art and contemporary production. 

Back in the parental house at Penlyn Estate, there are also no images on the walls, nor any family photographs. There is however calligraphic script. “There is none worthy of worship besides Allah. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him, is the messenger of God.” The twins grew up in a home where eyes on walls were not allowed—for one thing, it was believed to chase away the angels, which have a religious sanctity. A parental truce was declared for their artistic careers but no Essop photographs hang in the family home. Hasan’s walls in his Rondebosch East home are a different story. There are personal photographs showing his marriage to Tasneem, also a striking photographic trilogy in his passageway that describes Mecca, the holy Islamic city that also offers direction for prayer, and Medina, the burial place of the prophet Muhammad. Standing in front of the trilogy, Hasan explains: “This is like our centre point.”

WHERE CAPETONIANS LIVE

Compared to the rest of South Africa, Cape Town has a unique racial composition. The Black population was prevented from settling in Cape Town during the era of Influx Control and Coloured Labour Preference policies, which were in effect until the mid-1980s. Since then the Black population share has grown markedly. However, residential deracialisation across all colour lines are restricted to lower middle-class areas even though they remain predominantly White. 
(Source: Statistics SA, Census 2011)

VIEW MAP

Husain is articulate in describing how the brothers have dealt with the challenge around representation, initially excluding other figures in post-production to only implicate themselves. More recently, they relaxed this schematic but where other figures are present, the twins remain dominant. “If anybody’s faces are seen within the photograph, it’s our faces,” explains Husain. “If there are hints of other people, it’s how their bodies occupy and relate to spaces.” Looking at their new work on their ‘Unrest’ exhibition, the debate seems almost moot. The Essops appear to be pressing into new territory that engages modes of representation in broader society. As Husain says: “No longer is it about the idea around the eyes and the problems around the eyes. It’s becoming more around what are you trying to represent.”

A student walks through the amphitheatre of Hout Bay High. Husain and Hasan used to teach art at more privileged high schools—Rondebosch Boys and Wynberg Boys—before they switched to tougher neighbourhoods. Mid-week, they work jointly at Hout Bay High and the rest of the week separately at other locations.

That includes critiquing stereotypes and trying to provoke a new visual perspective. By way of example, we see in ‘Unrest’ a sculptural installation of two figures (the twins) apparently gearing up for battle but dressed in prayer robes that have a peaceful function. Likewise, the photographic work Freedom Fighters depicts “militants” at a training camp but situated in an outdoor fitness park on the Sea Point promenade. Through such surprising juxtapositions, ‘Unrest’ questions “the gaze”—the art of looking and being looked at. John Berger’s seminal book, Ways of Seeing (1972), sets out how art became a political issue by bringing attention to the conscious construction of European oil painting conventions in setting up such a gaze, as well as the role of photography in that deliberate visual act. The Essops’ self-replicated world could be construed as a warning meme where echo chambers re-inscribe themselves.

If anybody’s faces are seen within the photograph, it’s our faces

We sit back down in front of a computer at Penlyn Estate to flip through images of new work. The screensaver depicts Husain, a tiny little figure unrecognisable in a massive sea of blue. A recreational surfer, he is bobbing in the ocean on his board, seeking the next wave. This picture is not one of their staged photographs—it is for real. Rylands may have been the circumscribed horizon line growing up, but the Essops have a new vanishing point now.

PART 4

Live Rich Die Trying. The school desktop on which these words appear is a hard single-seater in a freezing classroom in Hout Bay High; it is also a palimpsest of such doodled aspirations. The school sits on a mountainside slope. Although stormy, the views of a slate-coloured sea beyond the school’s doors are more hospitable. The supermarket Bayview, directly across the street, tells no lies. That, however, is where the scenic beauty starts and ends. This school is part of the tough Hangberg neighbourhood, on the slopes of Sentinel Hill overlooking Hout Bay on the southern fringes of the affluent Atlantic seaboard. A largely fishing community, people dwell in flat blocks, shacks and bungalows. In 2010 it witnessed bitter riots over housing.

Hangberg is a predominantly fishing community of flat blocks, shacks and bungalows. In 2010, the neighbourhood witnessed bitter riots over housing.

A group of Grade 10 students is busy colouring in mind maps in the classroom. One grabs my attention. It sets out an imagined life: 

“Starting
Pass Matric
Getting a Masters
A job in one of the biggest companies
Open my own company
Start Looking for Mr Right
Getting Married
Having two kids
The End.”

The mind map exercise, part of an after-school programme, is supervised by the Essops. The brothers work as tutors (“a mobile artbox” they call themselves) for Lalela Project, a non-profit organisation that runs an educational arts programme for youth in extreme poverty. They used to teach art at more privileged high schools—Rondebosch Boys and Wynberg Boys—and have since switched to tougher neighbourhoods. Mid-week, they work jointly at Hout Bay High and the rest of the week separately at other locations.

Husain says this work is important to him spiritually. “It’s not about the money. I believe in life after death that we will be questioned [for what we have done]. I would like credit on my MasterCard or my Visa.” His motivation is to make a child’s life better and he is also very conscious of differences in living standards. He adds: “We are living middle class lives with food on the table. They are living in a shack with no food on the table.” He cites issues prevalent in the Hangberg area, like abuse, violence, gangsterism and racism, and describes them as a “recipe for disaster”. As we stand outside the classroom waiting to go inside, the bell rings and the learners tumble out the door, a rising cacophony of hard, flat accents yelling across a courtyard. “Yoh!” he exclaims, in an amused aside. “Even I sound posh!”

It’s not about the money. I believe in life after death that we will be questioned [for what we have done]

Teaching was likewise a big decision for Hasan, in part driven by pragmatic concerns. He tells me, seated at a desk inside: “The ideal situation would be to survive off your art but realistically we are not William Kentridge or David Goldblatt where work sells for thousands and thousands, and sells constantly.” He also references as motivation the harsh realities: “Kids here live in shacks. They can’t study because there is noise and power outages but you can see they dress well, they want to make it, they want to go somewhere.” Drug abuse and gangsterism is a big problem in impoverished communities, adds Hasan, and is exacerbated by a lack of positive role models that Lalela tries to redress through its life skills coaching. “They want to be like the tough guys, live by their own rules ... Lalela is about creating a safe environment to support them to have fun and be creative ... If we reach one or two, it’s a great success. We do try to spot talent and harness it,” Hasan says.

They follow in the footsteps of other local artists who have turned artistic skill to socially engaged ends. These include Colin Richards, largely credited with the development of professional art therapy in South Africa. The Lefika Art Therapy Centre in Johannesburg is another example—it was set up in 1993 by Hayley Berman to respond to trauma from political violence under apartheid. Critics of this instrumentalist approach believe fine art should hold to its autonomous power, as advocated by Theodor Adorno. Artists have, however, increasingly adopted a participatory and socially inclusive process or routine, perhaps linked to a broader conflation of art and politics in the public domain. Suzi Gablik’s “connective aesthetics”, by way of example, in Suzanne Lacy’s ‘Mapping the Terrain’ (1995) seeks a model for connectedness where social context becomes “a continuum for interaction” with the reciprocity of an ecosystem.

A view across the security wall at Hout Bay High towards Hangberg - a tough neighbourhood on the slopes of Sentinel Hill overlooking Hout Bay. Husain and Hasan Essop run an after-school arts programme at the school.
PART 5

The Essops live in both worlds. They contribute to socially engaged artistic practice and participate in the fine art sector on their own terms, the latter putting them in a statistical minority. According to a 2010 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) industry report, there are only about 1575 artists practicing in the Western Cape out of a national count of 5500. They are also racially sidelined in an industry still lacking transformation: the majority of visual artists are white (58%) while only 3% are Indian or Asian. Choosing to practice photography is also unusual (7%); most visual artists are painters (47%), according to the same report.

It was not an easy ride for the Essops to get where they are now, but it happened fast. Husain’s fourth-year exhibition of photomontages in 2006 was talent-spotted by Storm Janse van Rensberg, formerly of the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town. Husain floated an idea of collaborating with his brother, a printmaking major, to the gallery. Go for it, came the response. The brothers produced five photographs. Shot at various locations in Cape Town, one depicted the brothers praying, while another showed them attending a dog fight. Their work now resides in public collections like the Iziko South African National Gallery and in the private hands of Sir Elton John, who has a large collection of photography. Thematically, there is a resonance with their new ‘Unrest’ work that also returns to Cape Town, after their practice being sited in various geographical locations.

We are looking at an inextricable reality we are faced with on a day-to-day basis inspired by our learners and our surroundings, having to deal with violence that occurs every day—living in Cape Town

In their signature collaborative style, which they call “a cool recipe”, each brother brings a particular nuance to the end result. This is most evident when they explain their work: one picks up a thread exactly where the other left off to expand upon or gently burnish what the other began. It is essentially a creative double act in the mode of Gilbert and George, or Jake and Dinos Chapman. Husain explains that previously they depicted less of themselves in their work and more of the landscape. “Now, we have taken it a step further where we have included more of ourselves, more of our performance, more consciousness of the props we use in our gestures,” Husain says. It is partly a technical consideration: shooting more images and extracting stills from a panoramic view. This technique offers printing scale and depth of field without blurriness. “The work actually looks three-dimensional. We are combining our performance with strong, clear quality,” he adds.

The Essops hard at work on one of their professional art projects. Since graduating from Michaelis School of Fine Art at UCT in 2006, the twins have quickly established themselves as one of the country's top young contemporary artists. They are represented by Goodman Gallery.

We are all seated on a bench outside the Hout Bay classroom. Driving rain is splatting us through a leaky roof. “We do have roles,” says Hasan. “I am good at this and him at that. When we are making a work, we know immediately without saying: this is the flow. So when we are at a site, it’s naturally a method and formula. It’s like a ritual if you ever watch us on a shoot.”

We return to the classroom to watch the mind maps develop. Earlier, the twins had shown the schoolchildren a presentation of spiral forms in nature as inspirational structural devices and reminded them how artists also often use spirals in their own work. They warmed everyone up for the lesson with meditation and deep breathing. “Put your hands on your knees and calm your minds and heart—it’s been a long day. Breath through your nose and out your mouth ... relax. And think about what is a spiral shape. Where is it in nature? Do you know what a spiral shape looks like? Take a deep breath altogether. Hold it and release.”

The twins spent part of their childhood in Penlyn Estate, a neighbourhood near Athlone at which they still have a weekly extended family gatherings.

Husain picks up another mind map by way of example, this one depicts a journey including drug paraphernalia (pipes) and images for manhood as well as medical symbols. “Since I’ve been in this community, this is a story I’ve come across a lot,” he tells the class. “This is reality. This is his maze and he has to overcome it to find the end. It’s brilliant!” His voice drops a register as he adds reflectively: “Brilliant. Inspired by the spiral shape.”

The Hangberg surrounds to some extent echo the earlier horizon lines of the twins’ lives and unsurprisingly perhaps speak to issues reflected in their latest body of work. Husain explains: “We are looking at an inextricable reality we are faced with on a day-to-day basis inspired by our learners and our surroundings, having to deal with violence that occurs every day—living in Cape Town, living with crime, living with paranoia, and how [it affects a person] on a physical, mental as well as a spiritual level. We are living in this constant feeling of unrest.” I think about how their own mind map might look -- where it began and how it has curled.

PART 6

 The TV in Hasan’s Rondebosch East home is flickering silent images of World Cup soccer in Brazil. He points out that while people are trained to believe that a camera cannot lie, the opposite is true of the surreal work he makes with his brother. “There is nothing real, it’s all constructed. It’s like a painted picture. It’s light-hearted, having fun. Yes, there are serious issues being dealt with, but, at the end of the day, it’s a nice picture that has been photographed and carefully constructed to look aesthetically pleasing while at the same time posing a conversation.” 

That is true—but it’s not the full story. For one thing, if we look at the latest photography from the Essops, our world does something very strange and curvy. The composite images are stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken from an original panorama. This technique has a strangely affective quality. It seems to unfold the landscape and give it a more malleable character. Malay Quarter, a photograph depicting the brothers standing amid a Bo-Kaap mural in an historical quarter of Cape Town’s CBD, is a case in point. “If you stand with a picture camera, you would never experience it like that. What happened is we opened it up because of the technique. It’s offering a different perception of what you see—everyday spaces but totally different,” says Hasan.

This 360-degree panoptic sweep is also not as innocent as it may sound. The brothers claim the vital surveying standpoint. Our gaze is their gaze, and the world literally bends from this direction. Speaking about the technical aspects of production, Husain earlier describes how they manipulate only the figures in the composition and not the landscape. He is adamant that they “choose the centre”, his comment chiming with Hasan’s words, while standing in front of the Islamic trilogy in his passageway: “This is like our centre point.” Religion is their personal centring mechanism, and it gets transfigured artistically in this series with a panoptic view of the world. 

This stretched version of reality becomes fully apparent when visiting the mural in person. It looks and feels like a totally different location. The mural is painted on the inside wall of a building on upper Wale Street in an area with Cape Malay heritage that today faces gentrification. Its brightly coloured residential facades and cobbled streets attract many tourists who mill about taking pictures. Through an archway the original mural becomes visible on a wall to either side, some steps leading to a residential area beyond. An unsigned painter has depicted historical Cape Malay traditions: a tailor at work, religious instruction, and other everyday scenes. It also includes an image of the first mosque built in South Africa, the Auwal Mosque on Dorp Street in the Bo-Kaap, constructed in 1789 during the first British occupation of the Cape. Two more contemporary murals on either side of a second inner archway form a kind of punctuation point.

Celebrating a birthday at the Essop brothers' parental home is in Penlyn Estate, a neighbourhood near Athlone, and the ambit of their childhood world until they finished primary school. The brothers describe their past as "a very standard way of growing up," surrounded by traditional spaces and conventional neighbourhood norms.

The brothers chose the scene for its contemporary resonance: in each mural vignette they see an equivalent scenario. It is also a personal site, because they relate strongly to Malay culture, albeit that they are of Indian descent. (When the Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape in 1652 and set up a trading post, they brought over exiles as slaves from the East Indies; they became known collectively as ‘Cape Malays’.) Hasan and Husain have taken various cues from the original murals for their own photograph. They have for instance mimicked a painted pose in their staged portraits as they stand among the mural images in a panorama. There is an ambience to the street scene that has its own particular quality, but the Essops have stage-managed it into a portrait that references what is already there. In reality, the experience of the site is quaint and a bit claustrophobic. In their rendition, it is majestic and expansive. They add a touch of magic to make the everyday otherworldly. 

It seems to run in the family. Later the same day, I visit High Tea Tighty, a birthday and novelty cake shop in Claremont’s CBD. Its marker is a large blue cupcake. In its windows are four-tiered cake models and inside are table pedestals made of the same cake models. The high-backed white chairs that stretch twice the length of normal ones are straight from Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter’s clock and chain hangs from the wall. The woman who created this particular rabbit hole is Husain’s wife, Zaheera Musa.

CAPE TOWN POPULATION GROWTH

Cape Town has a unique cultural endowment. As a tourist city, it plays host to difference and curiosity as a matter of course. As a port city, it has always invited and negotiated the conflicts of diversity and encounter. As a slave city, it has always struggled to reconcile inter-generational exploitation based on identity whilst wanting to move into a conflict-free future. In a globalising world, intense difference and diversity is a prized asset. However, it does demand an open and vibrant public sphere where inequalities embedded in institutionalised difference can be surfaced and vigorously contested. The ensuing energy of such democratic contestation is what makes a city, potentially, a great place.

Source: Statistics SA, Census 2011

VIEW GRAPH

Zaheera is also a trained fine artist who studied alongside the twins at Michaelis and can authoritatively claim her business card mantle, “cake artist”. Her decision to open her own business was born shortly after graduating in 2006. It was driven by a love of baking and beauty together with a simultaneous acknowledgement that she did not want to practice in a fine art world. “I didn’t think I was going to be a fine artist and make a statement,” she says. “An artist has a social responsibility ... because of what you say and its effect, whether you are speaking about an event or whether it’s how you portray something.” Art has a public audience, she explains; social responsibility comes with that public end point. A diploma in patisserie later, she opened the doors to High Tea Tighty in April 2013 and made a different kind of public offering. It’s difficult running a business, Zaheera says—notwithstanding, the very next day she opens a satellite stall at the V&A Waterfront harbour retail precinct.

While I sit at a table inside the bakery shop, Zaheera is visible through the side door carefully stencilling an elegant pattern around a cake base while an assistant in a chef’s jacket stands by. The gentle cries of Zaheera’s baby son are audible. I order hot chocolate and ogle the stylish cupcakes on display. “Life is short,” says the script on the wall. “Eat dessert first.”

An artist has a social responsibility ... because of what you say and its effect

The yellow Caterpillar is clawing at the red earth 100 metres below us as we stand looking down on Cape Town. The City Bowl is to the left, Table Mountain at our backs, and the Atlantic Ocean disappears into the horizon line. Winter rains have made large puddles of the site in District Six where the Essop brothers recently created a photographic montage, Resurrection. It depicts what they describe as a kind of Judgement Day and portrays satin cloths on the ground and figures emerging from this bruised landscape wearing the same. The work appears on their travelling exhibition, ‘Unrest’, but more importantly, the site as photographed no longer exists. 

The Caterpillar is part of a construction crew digging up foundations for new homes in a R7 billion redevelopment programme underway that aims to return evictees and descendants to their former neighbourhood. Claimants who registered for restitution may be eligible for newly-built homes. This includes Yunus Essop, who is on the waiting list along with others similarly dispossessed. Yunus used to live on Chapel Street. His business, a fabric store, is still located nearby and he continues to work there today. “He’s still living there,” says Hasan, metaphorically speaking of District Six. “When he left, something left with him and we inherited that link.” This is a geographic legacy for the twins, part of who they are without having physically lived there.  

This sort of ghosting of a landscape is told in Resurrection, a family narrative that mingles past and present into the liminal state of an uncertain future. It is enacted by zombie-like figures that hover between life and death. The imported fabrics they wear were sourced from Yunus’s shop Focus Fabrics —they are the same fabrics used by Cape minstrels in the annual New Year carnival, which celebrates the end of slavery. Yunus is a chief fabric supplier for the carnival’s numerous participants. The figures in the twins’ photomontage wearing this cloth seem to be drawn from burial mounds in the earth, facing the direction of the new housing developments. In short, the work comments on the death of District Six and its imminent revival. Since the evictions, the area has been a naked landmark in the city and a brutal reminder of the country’s apartheid past. But some red soil is today being turned.

Between us and the Caterpillar, people living in the open veld are busying themselves with domestic chores, sweeping between their bare mattresses and fussing with their clothes while an open fire sends white smoke into the air. The old foundations of razed homes are clearly visible in the long grass. In the Essops’ photographic montage, people living on this vacant land were similarly present but in the final image are obscured by a standing figure. We look at the razed stumps still visible through the grass. “We always used to drive through here and knew this was District Six and there were homes. It had this graveyard feel to us,” says Hasan. “I didn’t realise that there were remnants of the foundations. Only when we walked through did we really see. There is even a road that the grass is growing over.”

Driving away, Hasan points out the signboard to our right. It reads: District Six. It is not the City of Cape Town’s doing. Officially, the area is still known as Zonnebloem, a name prescribed by late-apartheid town planners. Haroon Gunn-Salie, a recent Michaelis graduate and fellow Goodman Gallery stablemate, recently pasted a replica graphic bearing the suburb’s original name, District Six, onto various signboards indicating the neighbourhood. His action, done without sanction, at night, is an act of symbolic reclamation. 

Today, months later, his signs pointing to District Six remain in place and the Caterpillar gains traction in the rear-view mirror—but there are arguably some reclamations beyond reach. As Hasan says of the new homes: “You are resurrecting the structure, but you are not resurrecting the people who should be in it.”

This is a geographic legacy for the twins, part of who they are without having physically lived there
The social problems in Hangberg are exacerbated by a lack of positive role models that Lalela tries to redress, says Hasan. The brothers are conscious of the difference in living standard between themselves and the students with whom they work.

OTHER VOICES

Diversity: Skateboarding (Sea Point)

CREDITS

Editor: Sean O'Toole & Tau Tavengwa

Copy Editor: Janine Stephen

Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Film: Periphery Films

Infographics: Blain van Rooyen

Digital Design: Pixel Project