Igshaan Adams: Oorskot

Blank Projects, Cape Town. Originally published on ArtThrob

“A luxurious object is still of this earth, it still recalls, albeit in a precious mode,
its mineral or animal origin, the natural theme of which it is but one actualization.”

- Roland Barthes

What gives an artwork its life? Is it from inception by its creator, or by interpretation? An artwork’s meaning can be understood by our relationship with either the piece itself or its subtext. Our individual experiences are based around the myriad of relationships we have with everything: from object to context, from moment to memory. While countless meanings and values are ascribed to objects, we are still all of this earth. The title of this exhibition roughly translates to ‘remains’ and through this, Igshaan Adams’ Oorskot artworks demonstrate the multiplicity of meaning and relationships: God, the self, our community and mortality. 

The first striking element of the exhibition is that the artworks are undoubtedly made of waste materials: recycled nylon rope, rusted metal poles, stained cotton rags and string. In a post-industrialist age the need for material sustainability and upcycling is pressing. Yet in our melting pot cosmopolitan era this means otherwise for cultural traditions where authenticity and hybridity form such a large part of identity discourse. Adams’ work repeatedly references his cultural and social traditions by investigating the modern Muslim identity. Does modernity inherently oppose traditionalism? In our cultures of mass-production what is left for the sacred or the pure?

Tapestries and prayer mats constitute a large part of Adams’ memory growing up Muslim. In Islam, prayer mats are placed as a separator between the floor and the worshipper for cleanliness whilst praying. In using found materials – unhygienic, discarded and impure in their nature – the artist subverts the idea of the cleanliness symbolised by the traditional prayer mat. These found materials contrast the traditionally respected woven materials. This contradiction is representative of the artist as he navigates a rapidly changing ever-modern society while considering his relationship with a religion that is commonly perceived as conservative.

Adams is a practicing Muslim, yet he was raised by Christian grandparents and identifies as gay. Evidently his relationship with religion is very complex since traditionally Abrahamic religions condemn homosexuality. He has said before that his work is influenced by Jacques Lacan’s ideas around alienation of the self. Yet even if he were self-accepting, and accepted within his immediate community, he would inevitably still face a broader displacement, since a fundamental part of his identity is negated by the traditional format of his religious upbringing. This is a painfully tender state for anyone to be in. With Groen Amara the title refers to a bitter herbal remedy his grandmother gave him as a child. Using a particularly toxic green nylon the tapestry alludes to the insidious displacement he experiences on a daily basis – acceptance and healing are not always easy to swallow, much like his grandmother’s bitter tonic.

His timeline of previous works exhibits constant reference to prayer mats and Islamic text. Evident in Shahada (relating to the Muslim profession of faith) we see the making of what could have become a circular Islamic wall hanging: a green woven tapestry with a geometric pattern referencing modern Arabic script. Green is used in Islam to represent paradise and is often used in the national flags of Islamic countries. The tapestry, unfinished, hangs with loose ends attached to the wall where a bundle lays gathering on the floor. Its partial completion can be read against the artist’s on-going process of actualization, implied by the mid-woven tapestry’s pinned up loose ends.

Many of the wall pieces hang with completed weave – skilful but undirected. Some form shapes, while most of them loosely expose their raw threads. His previous works have engaged with the textile industry and its connections to the Cape Town Muslim community. The works in Oorskot however seem to be exploring what’s left of the textile industry. Apartheid removals of people of colour, gentrification and globalization have destroyed what was once a thriving local industry. Displacement is rife. It only adds to the poignancy that this exhibition is situated in Woodstock with its legacy of forced removals of its community and subsequently the loss of what was the centre of the textile industry.

With the artist’s history of exhibiting tapestries, this show demonstrates a turn in Adams’ process and outcome. In his collaborative efforts with sculptor Kyle Morland, Adams creates a new collection of sculptural tapestries featuring rusted metal structures. Stoflike oorskot (translating to ‘mortal remains’) sits in the middle of the room. The title speaks of life and death. The textile drapes over the rusted skeleton with ends piercing through, reminiscent of a decaying carcass of something that once was. These works reference a collective memory of the textile industry in Woodstock. Intergenerational trauma and remembrance, a history of which is undeniably interlaced with Adams’ present.

Remains have however been immortalised through Oorskot(from which the exhibition acquired its title). Oorskot is a sculptural installation hanging from the ceiling to the floor that originally started out as a pile of garbage collecting in the artist’s studio. By restructuring and remodelling what was once considered useless, the intricate connections of nylon, wires, and string demonstrate an organic process of rebirth. This nature-like dynamic is further applied to Ontgroei where the brightly coloured hanging sculpture consists of found wire and beaded necklaces. The striking green and playful wire arrangements along with the title (translating to ‘outgrown’) suggest a bountiful organic counterpart to the once lifeless objects. It is with this uplifting approach to mortality that Adams also pays homage to his grandmother who has notably featured in his previous exhibitions. In Ouma, the artist weaves rope and aged cotton around wire hangers to create a ghostly silhouette. Scattered with pearly-like beads and using floral patterns and cream textiles the figure evokes a nostalgic presence of the artist’s grandmother. Though ghoulish in nature, the work seems to hold tender memories and sentimentality rather than being a marker of death.

Adams’ works collectively utilize a form of beauty created with found objects. Though waste materials, the combination of textures and colours creates a mirage effect of something new and alive. They are process-heavy works that demonstrate how sentimentality and meaning are created through time. Our relationships are sacred experiences; with loved ones, family, our community, and especially ourselves. A subjective existence comes with understanding our world as well as questioning it. Adams uses this space to reflect on generational history and memory. He places himself within his community. He vulnerably questions and confronts the complexity of this modern individuality. And by humbly suggesting his art has a life of its own he toys with the idea of playing God, where memories as fleeting moments in time are poignantly manifested as real.

Quotation from Barthes, R. 1972 [1957]. Mythologies. Translated by Jonathan Cape Ltd.
New York: The Noonday Press, p. 98.