The Doppelgängers

Words by Kim Gurney & Photography by Sydelle Willow Smith

We are driving down a dark Southern Suburbs road on a Cape winter’s night, the road slicing a neat dividing line between the childhood checkpoints of twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop (29). These names have traction on the local contemporary art circuit and increasingly an international one too. It all began, however, in an understated way. Hasan, the elder twin, describes his past as “a very standard way of growing up”, surrounded by traditional spaces and conventional neighbourhood norms. These arguably helped forge a down-to-earth nature that, despite early professional acclaim, still distinguishes both twins’ personalities. It also primed a lively openness to a larger world that is both their charm and vulnerability. 

We are travelling back in both geography and time to the first family home. Hasan is driving his compact Honda Jazz following a weekly extended family gathering, the lengthy table fuelled by generous food and chatter. We have come from Penlyn Estate to our right, a neighbourhood near Athlone. This parental home is where Hasan lived until a few years ago and where Husain still resides. To the left is our target destination, Rylands, the ambit of the Essops’ childhood world until they finished primary school.

The back-story to this “standard” way of growing up, however, is one of forced displacement—a narrative that is not uncommon to the greater area southeast of Cape Town called the Cape Flats. It is bounded by the M5 highway to the west, N2 in the north, Weltevreden and Lansdowne Road to the east and the False Bay coastline in the south. According to the Census 2011, the most recent, 583 000 people reside in the Cape Flats Planning District (Athlone, Manenberg, Hanover Park, Ottery and Philippi), out of a total population in the city of over 3.7 million Capetonians. Yunus Essop, father to the twins, was forcibly relocated in the 1970s by apartheid legislation to Rylands from District Six, a racially mixed suburb in the city’s heart. District Six was in 1966 declared a whites-only area. House demolitions followed shortly after. About 60 000 people were eventually displaced. Yunus’ own family roots, as well as his wife Rashidah Essop, are from the Indian village of Manobas. Through the instrumentality of the Group Areas Act of 1950, Rylands was designated for “Indians” while the central urban nodes were designated for whites. The spatial legacy of segregation still informs much of contemporary Cape Town’s urban morphology in what some scholars term “neo-apartheid”.

In contrast to Penlyn Estate, which boasts more contemporary and spacious houses, those in Rylands appear smaller and packed closer together. People mill about outside, lots of cars are parked on verges, backyards are conjoined. One garage door is half-open with some chair legs visible and human legs too. But it is not all conviviality. Crime is an issue—“the wrong people walking into the wrong people,” as Hasan puts it. After navigating a few more streets, we pass by the former family home. It is remarkable for its lack of fencing in contrast to its well-secured neighbours and is, unusually, set back from the road.

Hasan is wearing his trademark peak cap, which he sometimes sets back to front. His dark moustache and trim beard match his brother’s but his voice has a slightly more laid-back register. Their personal lives are in synch: both are married fathers, with one small child, and they work for the same organisation. Husain is more extroverted and takes the evident leads, while Hasan fuels that trajectory. Their individuality is perhaps best asserted in the creative interests they maintain on the side rather than their photography, which they practice as a tethered duo represented by one of the country’s top dealers, the Goodman Gallery. Husain has an archive of black and white photography dating back to student days that expands as he travels. Hasan is a draughtsman at heart, with a mark-maker’s interest in printmaking and painting. Husain’s studio is a computer; his conversation flows as smoothly over their work’s conceptual underpinnings as the intricate technical aspects of post-production. Hasan’s studio is a spare room; it includes an easel, sketchbooks and a prayer rug. His words are more personally invested in the issues at stake: “We are telling our life story. The art is kind of like an alter ego. It’s these other personalities that are being expressed.”

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