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For His First U.S. Museum Show, Igshaan Adams Creates Tapestries That Reflect on South African History

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Imagine stepping off a paved road onto a swath of greenery, seeking a shortcut. Over the course of many years, many others do the same. In trampling the underbrush, a new path is created—together, unconsciously, you have carved what’s known as a “desire line.”

That phenomenon lends its name to the title for a new exhibition of Cape Town–based artist Igshaan Adams at the Art Institute of Chicago. His largest exhibition to date, “Desire Lines” is also Adams’s first major show in the U.S. and features more than 20 majestic, intricate tapestries and textile installations, dating from 2014 to ones fresh from the studio. To each he has added found objects drawn from his native South Africa—shells, rope, wire, glass, and beads—and he sculpts them with help from his friends and family.

In his art, the literal act of weaving represents how the history of Adams’s hometown, Bonteheuwel, a segregated working-class township of Cape Town, is woven into his spirituality, sexuality, and family. Al-Muhyee (The Giver of Life), from 2020, for example, is a rose in bloom, in a nod to his Sufi faith. He titled another I was a hidden treasure, then I wanted to be known (2020), and its thick weaving of metal, rope, and tassel resembles a canopy or camouflage. Its name references a belief that God created humankind because he needed to be recognized; we submit to being known too, Adams says, and hope the rewards outweigh the ordeal.

In a monumental new commission created for the show, diverging paths of glass, gold, and wood offer visitors several ways forward. His art has always posited that life is the sum of the paths we tread between the individual and the community, between the self and the soul. Now, a decade into his career, he asks of viewers, “If your life left an imprint, like the body makes along desire lines, what shape would you hope to leave?”

To learn more about the show, which is on view through August 1, ARTnews interviewed Adams by phone.

ARTnews: “Desire lines” seems like such an affecting metaphor because it’s something immediately familiar. These paths are everywhere, we’ve all contributed to one, but without our noticing.

Igshaan Adams: You can’t sit there and watch it happen; you only know it’s happened because of the evidence over time—this imprint left behind on the earth. I think that’s another point I strongly relate to, the evidence of whatever’s happening internally.

Memory places a big role here, too.

Absolutely, that’s always been a very important aspect of my inquiry into myself. To remember things that I might have forgotten, or things that live in me, mystical things. This show has a strong spiritual undertone. Desire Lines may be the most important artwork on the display, but it’s surrounded by many others. What I’ve been taught from a Sufi point of view is that we are in a state of forgetfulness, we have been conditioned to forget—that is the human condition, and it takes tremendous effort to activate those qualities buried behind our layers. That’s what I mean with when I say you can’t witness the pathways forming. And to relate this to weaving, one action in and of itself isn’t going to make the difference or bring anything significant into reality. It’s the constant repetition of the action that ultimately creates something substantial. It’s only after a lot of effort that these you see the evidence of this process.

This taps into your theme of collectivism and following the thread of spirituality—many of your works incorporate prayer rugs in which the act of kneeling connects you to something greater than yourself.

The prayer rugs carry evidence of the body’s imprint, where the feet and knees touch and especially where [one’s] head lightly bleaches the top of the fabric. Materiality is so important to me. The bead, the thread itself is so unremarkable in that it is something we see and use all the time, but collectively it becomes so much more than its parts.

Can you tell me more about how your community is involved in your practice?  

This is one of the most important aspects of my practice, the sense of community. Weaving lends itself to a community forming because it is so labor intensive—you need many hands. My assistants in my studio are all people I have a strong history with, my main assistants are women I worked with for five years at an NGO, others are my family. My studio manager is someone I’ve known since I was five. I’ve been able to use my relationships and history with each to create something special. I often buy loose beads or jewelry and we mix them like spices in a bag and send the bags to six or seven different homes in the community I grew up in. It’s also a way for families, grandparents, children, some people I haven’t even met yet, to earn money. I’ve tried to estimate but I would guess 60 or 80 people are somehow connected to the studio.

Have you always worked like this?

I grew into it. For many years it was just two assistants, but I’ve deliberately evolved in a way to make it community centered. It’s like asking others to write your biography. And if I sent the same batch of beads to different homes, nothing is coming back the same. If there is a boldness I am trying to achieve, the people with bolder personalities help me. In art school we sketch the same person, and every picture is different. There’s a variation. There are different hands that spark something unexpected, makes the everyday material more than its beginning.

Part of the AIC exhibition is rematerializing the linoleum floors common in Cape Town, so who’s better suited to that than the people who walk them every day. 

Who better understands what they represent? One of the security women for the show immediately connected to the floor and said the same thing I hear back in South Africa: “Oh, that reminds me so much of my grandmother’s home.” There’s a certain feeling that my life is represented in the show. I find that very beautiful.

And this is your most comprehensive show yet, with works spanning your career. What’s it been like to take that all in?

 Oh god, I have to keep myself calm sometimes. You have this moment where it’s here in front of you, the evolution is clear. The weaving, for example, there’s clear increase in the complexity of the mix of the materials, which makes me so happy. It’s incredible to see thread that runs throughout, the single inquiry into the self, reflected to the external world. That was always an obsession. One of the first questions that sat with me and wouldn’t leave me was about what had happened in my early life, the domestic space, the political environment, my grandfather being a policeman for the Apartheid government—how it all created a certain structure internally. What parts of the structure did I need to keep and what did I need to let go of? It’s not the easiest thing to question. But I realized I didn’t mind going to where there was pain and darkness and not pushing it away, confronting it with curiosity. I asked, Why is this pain not unfamiliar?

And what answers did you find, looking inward?

These questions came from real conflicts. Growing up in South Africa being Cape colored, I already got the feedback that I wasn’t as good as others. There was something wrong with me intrinsically. Being queer and being Muslim, for instance—I just couldn’t reconcile it. I went two years celibate thinking I wanted to change myself to fit what was acceptable, but obviously that led to a lonely existence. And thankfully I broke free of that, though the feelings—that I’m queer, and I want to be loved, and loving, and have the full experience of being alive—never go away. I was an atheist before, and I had to sort of come out as a believer.

Those early conflicts settled, and the only wish to remain was to have peace. I was so determined to know it, to have a feeling that I can walk in my own shoes and stand in my own body unafraid and unashamed. That is what I’ve gained: the settling of something.

One question you pose in the exhibition materials is “How would you treat someone differently if you knew everything, or nothing, about them?” Can you expand on that?

Growing up in South Africa has so much to do with what you look like, though I have to admit things have changed. There’s a tension between Creole and Black people because the Apartheid government classed us differently and created this divide successfully. The Black Lives Matter movement, there was a shift. But before, when I met my partner, who is a white British man, there was always such a contrast in how he was treated in that world even though he is not from that world. There was always this feeling that if you knew me, wouldn’t you treat me different? In Cape Town there was always this suspicion that I’m there for bad intentions. It’s the universal situation of being Black in the world.

For so long I was obsessed with identity formation, how we had come to think and be. And of course, how would I think differently if my same body was placed in a different environment. Would I be a different person, would I think differently? Eventually I realized it didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t care—male, female, queer, Muslim. I just am, and that is enough

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