Adams’s work, too, goes beyond the pat formulas of identity politics. He examines a somewhat similar take on death and rebirth (in concept at least) through his explorations of self-annihilation or the complete effacement identity via mystical and spiritual rituals, combined with art and its spaces and practices.
He moved from the found objects and performances involving his family (one well-known one involved his father performing Muslim burial rites on his still living son before an audience in a gallery) to other kinds of transformative artistic practices.
Sticking with domestic and religious paraphernalia – prayer mats, nylon washing-line cord, curtains, tassels and bead necklaces – he started doing things like weaving his own tapestries, sometimes including fragments of religious script, sometimes abstract. Sometimes they seem to be somehow unthreaded or undone.
These in turn evolved into more sculptural pieces, three-dimensional forms made by weaving cotton twine (and sometimes the nylon and beads) onto skeletons or scaffoldings made using wire garden fences – another domestic object and symbolic border he’s transformed and subverted. The abstraction or incipient forms of Adams’s sculptures suggest a “becoming” – a process rather than a finished object. Or maybe a celebration of betweenness as the most creatively productive – but difficult and painful – place to be.
For all his rejection, or constant need to escape, the grime of the political and material world – the ways in which religion fails the spirit, in which family fails the child, politics fails the individual and art and culture fail the lived life – he constantly returns to these things with love and generosity.
His seemingly dangerous, or even profane, games with religious paraphernalia is a prime example. Rather than accept that Islam does not accept him because of his homosexuality, he reads its texts against the grain and tries, through sheer will and love, to keep the door open – to allow it to transform to accommodate him.
That goes for the gallery space too. The secular art-going public might be in the habit of seeing the white cube as occupying its own, distinct cultural realm, but Adams doesn’t accept that either. Nor does he reject it. Instead, he reconstitutes it variously as filthy domestic space and as sacred or religious space. Once again, he expresses his love by not letting the art world – another funny bunch of cultural practices – escape without being unsettled and perhaps charged with new potential.
That’s what, I think, the treatment of the exhibition catalogue as sacred text is about. It’s not liberal taunting from the margins – it’s something much more sincere and heartfelt than that. It’s a show that the sacred and sublime exist in the mundane and ordinary. The untreated board of the cover and the exposed cotton stitching on the spine – never mind the representation of an artist’s work that it enfolds – articulate just how important the everyday is. Spiritually, we might not be “in” the material baggage of our lives, but they bear our trace – we live through them, and they give meaning to our lives, although we’re constantly escaping them. Afterwards, like the “tapyts”, they might be a funny combination of articulate and mute. Or, in the case of the abstract or chaotically unformed sculptures, they might represent something incipient: domestic materials reworked, re-envisioned and made strange and beautiful.
When Dust Settles is on at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, until September 15, 2018, after which it will travel on a nationwide tour of museums and institutions across seven cities.