Enacting Scenes of Unrest in the Essop Brother’s Photographs

Essop Brothers, Unrest, Freedom Fighters

Freedom Fighters


Unrest is Hasan and Husain Essop‘s Standard Bank Award exhibition, which premiered in Grahamstown at the Nation Arts Festival last year.The Johannesburg opening of the show last week at the Standard Bank Gallery however seems perfectly timed, set against the recent spate of awful social turmoil. This notion of unrest permeates the exhibition of photographs, giving voice to the brother’s uncertainty for the future. “We are in a country where the future is very unclear,” Husain explains. Crime and violence are part of the everyday, and the basis for most of the scenes that the brothers create in their images. Their image of freedom fighters training on the Sea Point outdoor gym is a commentary on one’s need to be able to protect oneself in a country where crime is part of the every day. The large foreground and centred horizon similarly makes the viewer a witness to the scene – complicit in the act.


The photos in this body of work were all shot in the brother’s hometown of Cape Town, and respond to specific sites and spaces. However, the themes and narratives of dispossession, violence and colliding histories has universal relevancy. An ongoing concern in the Essops’ work is the intersection between the local and the global. In Unrest this is plays out in their image of the Athlone spaza shop being looted. In the background the mountain is visible, but this is not the postcard view of Table Mountain, the top tourist destination, this is the backside of the mountain, the dark side of the ‘cosmopolitan’ city. This scene poses a comment on xenophobia, which in the case of Lavender Hills, is the result of changing social dynamics due to globalisation and micro-economics.


The brothers create their now signature style spherical images using a 360° rotating tripod, shooting 36 frames per sequence, and repeating this until they have captured the full panorama. This essentially captures everything around the camera, which in post is flattened into a single plane, creating a warped effect where everything is in focus and the subjects are in perspective. This effect reflects the cyclical nature of history, an important part of the brother’s work, as well as references the ancient sacred Muslim ritual of circling the Kaaba in Mecca.


The Essop brother’s art is fundamentally informed by their Muslim faith, which influences the subject matter, themes and ways in which they work. Their work interrogates notions of religious stereotypes and media representation. Because of Islam law and the ethics of conveying a subject fairly in photography, the brothers are the only subjects in their images, enacting different roles in layered narratives. These constructed, artificial scenes undermine the notion of a photograph as record. This makes the process extremely personal for the brothers as they are literally embodying their art.


It was only after varsity that Hassan and Husain began collaborating in their work, but being twins, the idea of copies and interior-exterior dialogue was part of their foremost experience. Having worked together now for some years, Hasan and Husain have their process down to a well orchestrated routine. While Husain shoots and edits the images, Hasan handles all production. They spend on average 40 minutes shooting each location. The twins say that working together allows them to refine their ideas and push their shared visual and conceptual vision forwards.


Husain begins stitching the images together starting with the background and then layers the figures in to construct the scene, much like painting Hasan says. In several images the brothers use disembodied shadows to represent histories. In the image of Mandela Park township these shadows symbolise freedom fighters and comments on the lack of change and issues around housing, sanitation and education. The shadows and the children are both part of the landscape, the past and the future rendered voiceless in this situation.


The twin’s style of photography also functions as a form of symbolic ownership of public spaces – re-imaging the familiar in an unfamiliar way. This is most evident in their image of District Six, where figures stand and lie in the landscape shrouded in coloured cloth, a reference to Muslim graveyards and line from the Koran which states that “From nothing a body will appear.” This poses questions about who has claim to and inherits the land, resurrecting the historically dispossessed, as well as critiquing the current redistribution acts.


Unrest presents a universal portrait of social unease. While the brothers themselves are upbeat, cheerful guys, their work offers a gritty picture of a South Africa 21 years after democracy.


Unrest is on at the Standard Bank Gallery until the 20th June 2015.


Essop Brothers, Unrest, Malay Quarters

Malay Quarters


Essop Brothers, Unrest, Silat Mulut

Silat Mulut


Essop Brothers, Unrest, 789



Essop Brothers, Unrest, 99 Steps

99 Steps


Essop Brothers, Unrest, Mandela Park

Mandela Park


Essop Brothers, Unrest, Resurrection



Essop brothers, Unrest, Athlone Superette

Athlone Superette


Essop Brothers, Unrest, Night Patrol

Night Patrol


Essop Brothers, Unrest

Essop Brothers, Unrest


Photos of images sourced from Goodman Gallery.



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