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Issue 238

Igshaan Adams’s Lines of Desire

How the artist's development is shaped by his family and local community

BY Vanessa Peterson in Interviews , Opinion | 20 OCT 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 238, ‘Family Constellations

What I find important for artmaking is to have an existential question: my exhibitions always start from a provocation, some idea that has bothered me since I was young. For my first solo exhibition with Thomas Dane Gallery, which opens this month, I decided to return to the house where I grew up, and where my brother and his family now live, in Bonteheuwel – a township in Cape Town created for those who were Coloured (a legally defined racial classification during apartheid for members of multiracial ethnic communities) in apartheid-era South Africa. The title of the exhibition, ‘Primêre Wentelbaan’ (Primary Orbit), alludes to the first spaces into which we ventured to explore the world. For me, that early domestic environment really shaped how I became the person I am and how I see the world. 

I have often wondered about the first person who decided to take a shortcut, paving the way for others to follow

When I was five years old, my parents relocated, and my grandparents decided that my siblings and I should stay with them until we finished primary school. Later, as an artist, I realised that I needed to explore these formative relationships and look back at the environment in which I grew up in order to understand myself. I created tapestries using beads that focus on the ‘desire lines’ – informal shortcuts taken by pedestrians through open fields – that I used to first venture out of the family home with my brother. Contradicting the routes urban planners had mapped out, these paths resulted from people using land and space in their own way. I have often wondered about the first person who decided to take a shortcut, paving the way for others to follow. I feel a kinship with them, having grown up in an environment where there were no artists, no one to create a path for me. It was made very clear to us from a young age that our professional options would be limited, as we were considered second-class citizens, so I had no choice but to blaze my own trail.

Igshaan Adams, Toe raak dit laat, 2022
Igshaan Adams, Toe raak dit laat, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and blank projects; photograph: Mario Todeschini

My family has always been integral to my practice. In the performance Please Remember (2013), for instance, my father washed and prepared my body in line with the Islamic ritual for burying the dead. While for Salat Aljamaeat Min Bonteheuwel (A Communal Prayer From Bonteheuwel, 2023), my contribution to the first Islamic Arts Biennale earlier this year in Jeddah, I collected 100 prayer mats that, having been used by the same individuals for decades, carried the imprints of their bodies. We then copied the imprints from the rugs to produce carpets and weavings based on them. My father helped me in this work, too, by taking the name of each individual whose rug we used and conducting interviews with them.

After I graduated from the Ruth Prowse School of Art in Cape Town in 2009, I got a job in a Black township as an art facilitator working with women to give them skills and make products that they could sell to tourists. Later, when I needed assistance with my projects, I employed my mom and two women whom I had taught, and they’re still with me several years later. I eventually employed some of their family members, too. My mom has five sisters, and two of them work in my studio. They do a lot of embroidery as well as the preparation of materials for weaving. I taught my cousin to weave, and she is now one of the star weavers. One of my younger brothers is a studio technician. I’ve known my studio supervisor since I was five: we were in the same class throughout school. It’s my responsibility to bring my family and my local community with me as I grow.

 Igshaan Adams, Work in progress (detail), 2023
Igshaan Adams, Work in progress (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and blank projects, Cape Town; photograph: Lindsey Appolis

I often find myself using the word ‘we’ when I speak about the work because my practice is not singular at all. I’ve been working with the same team since the beginning of my career and even my neighbours feel like my extended family. A friend recently told me how, over the years, I’ve managed to carry the Bonteheuwel community with me along the way, and that’s probably the most meaningful thing anyone has ever said about my practice. Ultimately, it’s served me to have to find my own way and to find my own desire line.

As told to Vanessa Peterson

This article first appeared in frieze issue 238 with the headline ‘Desire Lines’

Igshaan Adams's ‘Primêre Wentelbaan’  will be on view at Thomas Dane Gallery, London from 11 October until 16 December.

Igshaan Adams will be participating in the 35th Bienal de São Paolo, Brazil until 10 December. 

Main image: Igshaan Adams, Work in progress (detail), 2023. Courtesy: the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and blank projects, Cape Town; photograph: Lindsey Appolis

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.