Mousse 74 TIDBITS
Beaded Affairs: Igshaan Adams
by Rahel Aima
Warp and weft are recast as latitude and longitude in Igshaan Adams’s woven works. The South African artist is best known for his hanging sculptures, the most recent of which resemble aerial topographic maps of land, water bodies, and trees. But his practice also spans installations and performances that negotiate various Muslim rituals (for instance funerary rites of cleansing and wrapping the body) as well as the legacies of apartheid. They hone in on a particular set of coordinates with the accuracy of an eyebrow threader zeroing in on a single hair.
The place is South Africa, where the mixed-race Adams grew up as a colored person, as classified under apartheid’s juridico-legal system. His experience of racial segregation intersects with his background as a queer, practicing Muslim. Born to Christian and Muslim parents, he was raised by Christian grandparents who were nevertheless supportive of his faith. Negotiating these conflicting identities didn’t come easily, and Adams would leave Islam before later returning to the religion. Importantly, it’s not a contradiction so much as a point of departure to unspool the twinned constructions of both his personal identity and the society around him.
Growing up in Cape Town, the artist’s family would trade old clothes for Xhosa baskets, and a young Adams would do his best to weave his own using fronds from an old palm tree in their garden. He’s still weaving today, but his materials now comprise rope, steel, found fabric (including the South African flag), and beads, and the results are draped, beaded affairs that sigh like a disembodied cowl neck or a work by El Anatsui. Other textile pieces hang like tapestries, their overlong fringe pooling on the floor and sometimes flopping over to obscure the rest of the work, as in Between Planes (2019). A series of Cloud sculptures from 2019 are almost ethereal in their airiness even as they resemble nothing so much as beaded, embellished thatches of pubic hair—or perhaps we might read them as loaded Rorschach tests?
Today, Adams’s family frequently participates in his performances, often enacting gestures of care. In Please Remember II (2013), later renamed Bismillah (2014), the artist’s father conducts the Islamic funerary rites of cleansing and wrapping the body in a symbolic act of filial death and mourning for an aunt who helped raise him. In earlier performances, a viewer might have encountered Adams’s mother serving up the Cape Malay spiced rice pudding boeber, or his grandmother crocheting while watching television, surrounded by furniture from the family home. The domestic is further intimated in his early work Vinyl (2010), which features vinyl flooring from his childhood township of Bonteheuwel. He manipulates the material using paint and fabric to speak to quieter personal his- tories that accrete in between, and in spite of, the walls and barriers of the apartheid state.
In the 2015 exhibition Parda at blank projects, Cape Town, colorful Rorschach-inspired textile works turned to the Islamic practice of purdah (literally “curtain”), which variously refers to veiling and modest dress, and spatial segregation by gender. Some of these pieces, such as Plate 10 (2014), take the term literally, featuring appliquéd fabric inkblots on a flowery curtain hung on a brass rail. More effective, however, is Plate 7 (2014), which applies its splotch to a rather hallucinogenic neon yellow and dark green Islamic grave cloth featuring images of the Kaaba and the Dome of the Rock, a background so semiotically loaded that it effectively neutralizes the inkblot’s potential as a psychoanalytic tool. The inkblots that we see around us, evidence of the ugliness of human nature, never come with a white background. And isn’t that blank piece of paper, erased of any context—whether historical, cultural, religious, gender, or sexual—just another colonial gesture anyway?
The formal influence of Islamic iconography is writ large in Adams’s practice. The blocky patterning of Islamic sacred geometry appears in a number of his tapestries, such as the octagram or Rub el Hizb in Oor die Drimpel (2020) or Vroeglig by die Voordeur (2020). The symbol, which sometimes appears as two overlapping squares, represents a subdivision of the Muslim holy book and is used to facilitate its reading or recitation. Coupled with the Afrikaans titles, I’m reminded of the language’s early history. Although it now uses the Latin script, it was first written down in Arabic when South African madrasas switched from Malay to the emerging local vernacular as their language of instruction. But the titles, which translate to “Over the Threshold” and “Early Light at the Front Door,” instead point to the liminality of being between classifications and identities.
Other works, like Surah-Al-kafiroon (2016), extend the theme by reproducing Quranic verses in beads and string and the blockily decorative Kufic script. The titular verse translates as “The Unbelievers” and speaks of a grudging plurality of faith, with a repeated refrain of “to you your religion and to me mine.” Here, it might variously refer to Adams’s own tolerantly multi-faith upbringing and religious journey, or, more sinisterly, to the fact that the same word is, in the singular, an anti-Black slur and the South African equivalent of the N-word. De jure apartheid may have formally ended in 1994, but its legacy lives on.
Igshaan Adams (b. 1982, Cape Town) maintains a multidisciplinary practice that examines hybrid identity, race, religion, and generational trauma. Adams combines weaving, performance, and installation in an intersection of personal history and his native Cape Town roots. Recent solo exhibitions include Getuie, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia (2020); stukkinne stories, blank projects, Cape Town (2020); I am no more, Akershus Kunstsenter, Oslo (2019); Al Latîf, blank projects, Cape Town (2018); and Please Remember, A Tale of a Tub, Rotterdam (2015). A solo show by Adams will open at Hayward Gallery, London (March 2021); Casey Kaplan, New York (May 2021); and the Art Institute of Chicago (2022).
Rahel Aima is a writer, editor, and critic from Dubai, currently based in Brooklyn. She is an associate editor at Momus, and editor of BXD: The Postwestern Review. She is currently working on a book about the art of the Indian Ocean and a collection of essays about digital culture and water politics in the Arabian Gulf. Aima was a 2018 recipient of the Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant.