Ellen Ramsey
Contemporary Tapestry

In the Galleries: Igshan Adams

I am totally obsessed with the weavings of Igshan Adams. I’ve been wanting to see the work of this South African artist IRL for quite some time. I narrowly missed my chance to see his show at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York last year. So, I just had to make a pilgrimage to see Igshan Adams: Desire Lines now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 1, 2022. I was not disappointed. I found the experience to be transformative, and I  suspect that is precisely the reaction that would please this deeply spiritual artist.

Igshan Adams, Epping II, 2021, wood, painted wood, plastic, glass, stone beads, seashells, chain, polyester and nylon rope, cotton fabric, wire, cotton twine, and fabric dye, 591 x 276 x 118 inches.

The word “tapestry” gets thrown around a lot, assigned to many things that are not really tapestry and even work that is not woven, but this work is full-fledged tapestry weaving. The familiar cotton twine warp is prominently featured. The only thing that is different about it is that Adams uses ordinary, mass produced items as weft: nylon rope, plied cords, strips of fabric, and a multitude of beads and bits strung on plied wire.  These elements are mixed for their color and reflective qualities and woven in discontinuous shapes. You can see ends hanging off the back. The cotton warp is sometimes visible (IF you look closely), but mostly when the sole weft is beaded wire. Even for the dourest traditionalist, this is tapestry.  Given the huge variety of materials incorporated into this work, the craftsmanship is simply stunning.

Igshan Adams, Al-Muhyee (The Giver of Life), 2020, String, rope, fabric, glass, wood, bone, and plastic beads, 97 x 106 inches.

Adams imagery is an outgrowth of his life growing up in the segregated community of Bonteheuwel, outside Cape Town, during apartheid. Adams is mixed race and Muslim. His story is multi-faceted and fascinating. I won’t go into it here (I could not possibly do it justice), but instead I urge you to read the great articles linked below if you want to know more. His weavings are a visual distillation of his life within his tight knit community in subject matter, medium, and execution. 

The work in this exhibition is inspired by the informal pathways created over time by foot traffic. Known as “desire lines” in landscape architecture, these lines form when many people repeatedly follow in each other’s footsteps. The large installation on the floor of the main gallery (Epping II) is inspired by an aerial view of Bonteheuwel and the visible traces of community interaction imprinted on the landscape. In reality, the land between the trails is dusty, barren, and strewn with broken glass and bits of colorful plastic trash. In Adams’ portrayal of the township, however, the land is comprised of glittering islands of beads and silky reflective ropes, with gaps between them indicating the desire lines. Copper wire “dust clouds” rise from the beaded landforms. The view looks more akin to paradise than a poor township.

“Bonteheuwel is often discussed in the South African media, but always in terms of death and gangs and as a dangerous place. It’s always been reduced to that. For me, a desire line is evidence that people are willing to go against what’s been laid out for them, or what the expectation is for their life.”     – Igshan Adams, from the label copy for Epping II

Igshan Adams, Langa, 2021, Wood, painted wood, plastic, glass, stone, and bone beads; polyester and nylon rope, cotton fabrics, chain, wire, and cotton twine, 94.5 x 123 inches.

There are 2D wall works that reflect on the landscape as well, such as Langa (2021). Langa is a neighboring township, and the crossed lines represent the interaction between the two communities as seen in aerial photographs.

Igshan Adams, Langa, detail

Adams also sees and transforms desire lines within interior spaces.  In his world, cheap linoleum printed with colorful patterns is used to cover the floors. Over time, foot traffic quickly erodes the linoleum, so much so that the flooring gets replaced every year at Christmas to spruce up the house. Adams began collecting the damaged linoleum floors of his friends and relatives in art school. He reimagines the “presence of absence” he sees in them in large, layered collages of flooring. They have been aptly referred to as “cartographies of the domestic.”  

Igshan Adams, When Dust Settles (detail), 2018-22, Found linoleum sheets, Overall dimensions variable, each sheet approximately 197x71 inches

The tattered linoleums also became the basis for tapestry cartoons. The patterns of household use are translated as irregular shapes woven with beads and other items, like cowry shells or gold chains. 

Sometimes the shape of the worn parts of the linoleum becomes the shape of the whole tapestry. Larch Weg 1 and 2  document the daily patterns of a family friend as she walked repeatedly between her kitchen sink and her living room chair. The transitory is thus made material and enduring.

There is another way that Adams’ tapestries are a reflection, and in fact a creation, of his upbringing and his community.  No surprise, his first assistant was his mom. Later Adams was employed as an Art Facilitator by an NGO that empowered mothers to lift their families from poverty by making quality products for sale. No doubt weaving was a common practice among women in the Muslim community, and I imagine these women both inspired him and taught him a great deal. An early piece in the show is telling. I was a hidden treasure, then I wanted to be known… (2016).  It stands out as relatively clunky in its execution and quite literally “searching” in both technique and content matter. It connects closely to his personal story of coming out as gay and pivoting toward a creative life. Is Adams solely responsible for this piece? Does it represent a turning point where weaving became his primary form of expression?

Today Adams creates these large weavings with the help of many assistants. His two primary weaving assistants were once a part of the program at the NGO. He has since taught numerous others how to weave – sisters, nieces, friends of friends. Even complete strangers in need of employment receive plastic bags full of beads that they string on wire for the studio’s use. Friends he has known since childhood help him manage the administrative aspects of his practice. In all, he estimates he employs 60-80 people! In addition to making great art, he has crafted a happy life for himself.

“Everyone’s kids come, as often as they can. They are messing around, so there’s a certain vibration; there’s music playing, laughing, people shouting—my mum’s laughter penetrates the whole space.”   – In Conversation with Tarini Malik, Zürich, 23 March 2022, for Oculus Magazine

You could accurately say that “it takes a village” to make this work. This exhibition is a visual manifestation of Igshan – his story, his creativity, his vision – but also his community, its very essence, its influence upon him and his influence within it. You can see the many hands involved in this work, but more importantly, you can feel it


For a great interview with Igshan Adams, visit https://www.artnews.com/art-news/artists/for-his-first-u-s-museum-show-igshaan-adams-creates-tapestries-that-reflect-on-south-african-history-1234622055/.

For another great interview that really gets into the making of the work, visit https://ocula.com/magazine/conversations/igshaan-adams/.  (In fact, Oculus Magazine is full of artists interviews if you are into that.  I am pumped to have discovered this!)

The best article I’ve read about the content and meaning behind work in this show is by Michael Dango for ArtForum and includes the actual aerial views of Bonteheuwel that inspired the tapestries. https://www.artforum.com/print/202206/michael-dango-on-the-art-of-igshaan-adams-88617

And the best of all, is the catalog for the show Igshan Adams: Desire Lineshttps://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300263855/igshaan-adams/  Every aspect of his life and work is covered in numerous, wonderful writings, including one by Adams himself. There is even a detailed analysis of the tapestry Upheaved by the textile conservator at the Art Institute that is fascinating.

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