Islamic Tradition Meets Post-Apartheid Identity in Igshaan Adams’s Intricate Tapestries

Emily Rappaport
Jun 15, 2015 6:19AM

Portrait by Kathrin Schulthess. Courtesy the artist and Blank Projects.

Last year, in a performance called Bismillah at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Igshaan Adams asked his father to bathe him and shroud him in three layers of cloth. In Islamic funereal tradition, this ritual takes place prior to burial, and the elder Adams tended to the younger one as he would to the dead. The 32-year-old South African artist has what he calls a “difficult history” with his dad, who suffered from addiction and had abusive tendencies when Adams was growing up. Their collaboration, in which the father washes and clothes the son, is a purifying act of paternal care and intimacy that nevertheless acknowledges serious filial suffering, exemplified by Adams’s symbolic death.

It is, of course, hardly uncommon for an artist’s practice to be deeply personal, but Adams’s intimate incorporation of his family gives his work a special power. While his maternal grandmother (and primary caretaker during childhood) was a devout Christian, she was also crucially supportive of her grandchildren’s religion (Islam), fasting with them during Ramadan and inviting imams to the house. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that she participated in the artist’s first-ever performance in 2009, staged amid furniture that Adams borrowed from his family and immediate community.


He worked with his mother on his 2011 solo show “In Between” at Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town, which he describes as his “big break.” There, he premiered his now-signature tapestries, a new batch of which will be on view next week in Basel at the blank projects booth at LISTE. The exhibition at Stevenson, which was oriented in the direction of Mecca, comprised a set of thick, ornately decorated blankets woven together into a patchwork installation covering the floor. (Visitors removed their shoes as they would in a mosque.)

Since then, Adams has created abstract, geometric textile works using a range of materials, from plastic beads to the South African flag. For the LISTE presentation, he initially wanted to unravel Islamic prayer mats and reassemble them. Although that proved an impossible task, he did knit from scratch the sculptures on view, using heavy-duty recycled rope and fragile Chinese necklaces, contrasting the clean geometry of prayer mats with the chaos of weaving.

Adams’s complex personal history and penchant for exploring his own lived experience makes his work ripe for questions of identity, which the critical narrative around him is quick to point out. He is both gay and Muslim. He is “Cape Coloured,” the term for South Africa’s creole, mixed-race minority, and was born 12 years before the end of Apartheid. Growing up, he says, “racism was completely normal. It’s been a struggle for me to try and undo some of those patterns of thinking that were instilled as a child.”

In his own family, he explains, his light-skinned aunt was able to get documentation stating that she was white, affording her an abundance of rights including that of marrying a white man. There is no doubt that Adams meditates on the sociopolitics of his life in his artwork. His show “Parda” at blank projects earlier this year, for example, included sculptures made from patterned curtains in “victorian colors” resembling the ones that hung in his aunt’s house. But he is understandably wary of being put into the box that often comes with belonging to politicized sexual, religious, and/or racial groups and making art about it.

That box is almost always troubling, and Adams’s practice is certainly too expansive to fit inside it. When I ask him if he feels committed to staying in South Africa, where his political and religious experiences inform his work (and where he is in the process of getting his master’s degree at Rhodes University), his answer is firm. “Definitely not,” he says. 

“I love placing myself in other environments. In my practice, the first thing above all was, ‘how has my domestic environment shaped me?’ But I want to experiment with what happens to me—and the work—when I’m in a different environment.” One such environment was Basel, where Adams completed a residency in 2013. It was isolated and freezing cold. “I couldn’t sleep,” he recounts. “I had nightmares. I really, really struggled.” In his fear, he began praying constantly, “speaking to God, fighting with God,” as he puts it.

The resulting work, a show at blank projects called “Have You Seen Him?” was an aesthetic response to the question of where to find God. Another new environment will be Rotterdam, where, as part of a residency this summer, the artist plans to focus on gentrification and religious cleansing. No matter where his studio is, Adams’s artistic process is always a psychological one. “I have always taken a personal approach to making the work,” he says. “As soon as I’m done, I detach myself completely. For me, it’s the process of making the work that becomes meaningful. I get to understand these conflicting aspects of myself.”

Emily Rappaport