Refuge – how many people lack all 5 of Maslow’s needs?

Refuge – the Essop brothers’ exhibition at the Goodman Gallery 2017

Mass Grave 2.4m wide, and composed of 100 different images By Hasan and Husain Essop. Source: Goodman Gallery

A photographic and installation exhibition by the brothers Essop:Hasan and Husain showed at the Goodman Gallery in 2017. Entitled Refuge which is defined in a wall text as  ‘the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or difficulty’, they examine the way Islam is represented in the mainstream media. The good side is that this exhibition is fairly accessible, the down-side is that it is at times a little over-determined. However, the content is long needed given the increasing Islamaphobia in the world and the stereotyping of all Muslims as radical fundamentalists and members of ISIS or ISIL committed to Jihad. The exhibition deals with exclusion and separation of people based on religion and creed, on issues of displacement and on issues of violence which are underpinned by the general argument that radical Islam is a distortion and misreading of the Q’uran:  It is not Islam that kills, people do.

From Syrian refugee crisis to wider world events 

Children’s clothing, seaweed that evokes bodies, an ambiguously crumpled man all evoke the tragedy of the migrant sea crossings Source: Liz at Lancaster Guesthouse

While the exhibition’s starting point was the Syrian refugee crisis, all the photographs are shot in Cape Town and there are underlying resonances of local forced removals –District 6 springing to mind. 

In the 2 side sections of the gallery, devotional Islam on the right of the entrance (in the form of a video of worshippers encircling the Kaaba at Mecca – one of the 5 pillars of Islam), were contrasted with propagandistic images of ‘political’ or ‘politicized’ Islam showing how recruits are converted to radical Islam and terrorism. It is these latter images that the main stream media reproduces ad nauseam, rather than the pilgrimage and ritual at the Holy City which are central to spiritual Islam.   

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The Essop brothers were the recipients of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2014, and the resulting exhibition Unrest has been seen in cities across South Africa as well as in Dubai and Sydney. 

Is this the sum total of two people’s refuge?

However what struck me when I left the gallery and crossed Jan Smuts Ave was a meagre pile of blankets, a small foam mattress, some cardboard, and a half empty checked shopping bag on the pavement – clearly the sum total of homeless people’s ‘refuge’.  As I was taking a photograph 2 young men hailed me from across the street and warningly asked why I was taking photographs. I explained that in the building over the road there were pictures of homeless people from other countries and then I came out of the building and saw these possessions of homeless people just next to the gallery.  It transpired that Betwell is from Mozambique and came here in 2010, almost certainly as an economic refugee. He has been trying to make it as a car guard on the street. Needless to say, Betwell and his friend have no home and often no food. 

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if Betwell and his friend do not have food (physiological needs) or shelter (safety needs) how can they even begin to work their way towards fulfilling the other needs?  The refugee crisis is right here on our doorstep.   


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