Igshaan Adams and I are sitting on cushions on the paint-spattered wooden floor of his room at Greatmore Studios in Woodstock.
“I sometimes say that creating artworks for me is almost having a conversation with my soul,” he tells me. “I’m Muslim, but I also identify as being homosexual which is very conflicting.” His Christian grandparents raised the 29-year-old as a Muslim, and this “also created a bit of conflict in terms of where exactly do I fit in”.
The result is work that is a constant grappling with the self: a quest to achieve an understanding about who he is, how he fits into the world, and how to negotiate the complexities and contradictions of his own identity in tension with his culture, community and religion.
As a child growing up in Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats, he was never exposed to art. “I had no clue, even, that I could make a living off this,” he says. He wanted to become a chef, but the hospitality course he wanted to do was too expensive. He settled for his second option, visual art, which was a third of the price. After two years at the College of Cape Town, he enrolled at the Ruth Prowse School of Fine Art where he majored in mixed media, graduating in 2009.
His graduation piece was Jou Ma se Poes – an installation representing “a typically Cape coloured living room” using objects from his family and community, and with eight self-portraits made up of fabrics from his home lining the walls. “I was looking really at identity and asking is it possible to be yourself in every situation,” he says. One portrait contained the most obvious reference to his sexuality – a ghostly depiction of himself in a blonde wig, with the first prayer of the Qur’an (considered, he says, the most holiest) carved out in the frame around it. “At the time I was still thinking I will conform, I will probably get married to a woman. What I was saying in that work was that I need to acknowledge the fact that this part of me still is there – it’s just being contained by the religion I choose to follow. It’s not going to go anywhere.”
In 2010 a version of the installation was shown at Blank Projects (the Woodstock gallery which recently signed him) as part of the queer-themed group show, Swallow My Pride. Adams’s sexuality is often present in his work, but “it shows up more as the conflict, the internal struggle,” he says. An example of this was In Between, his installation at Stevenson Cape Town in late 2011 featuring prayer mats quilted together, the carpeting shaped so as to depict a snake sliding across the floor. On the wall was a stitched canvas portraying a fez.
“I don’t want to sit with the same issue; I definitely want to grow. But for now I am having fun with where I’m at,” he says. He wants to continue working with carpets as a medium. In addition to a recently completed self-portrait, he is also working on a large installation piece featuring a dog sitting in the holy city of Mecca.
“I’m hoping that people will see that if you look at my work it’s always just been a very personal statement. I’m not trying to say anything about Islam in general because I just don’t know enough to say something about that. The only thing I feel like I really know is myself – so that’s what I can speak about. I think it’s inevitable that the work would be read politically because of the materials that I use and I can’t get away from that but I certainly don’t create from that point of view. It’s always about me, about my own home, family and community and the roles they have played in developing me.”
This perspective was deeply embedded in Vinyl, his first solo exhibition. Held at the Association for Visual Arts in April 2010, the show featured pieces of flooring from households he knew in Bonteheuwel. Adams went about “co-opting their stories as my own”, using the surfaces as canvases upon which to explore the notion of these objects as being silent witnesses to the joys and traumas of home life – an intimate layering of history, identity and domestic ritual. Hanging above a cluttered shelf in his studio is a rectangle of flooring which once belonged under the bed of a paralysed man. The worn vinyl is caked in brown, with subtle marks Adams has made using an earbud and Handy Andy.
“I always try to look at the work from my perspective and keep it about me,” says Adams, although he admits “that the work goes beyond that”. In working with prayer mats in his later pieces – mats used by millions of Muslims around the world and richly illustrated with Islamic motifs – he is connecting with something greater and universal.
This article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Wanted, as part of the magazine’s annual roundup of most promising Young African Artists. Adams has been announced visual artist of the year at the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artists Awards.