Art That Finds Clarity in South Africa’s Fraught Terrain

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On a recent afternoon, the artist Igshaan Adams instructed me to pull up Cape Town on Google Earth on my phone. We thumbed away from the waterfront and the verdant enclaves that hug the iconic Table Mountain, and over to the sprawling Cape Flats, all dusty brown.

This was where the apartheid regime forcibly relocated nonwhite people into commuter suburbs, designated by race. Adams, who is “Coloured” by that rubric — a holdover term that remains widely employed as a cultural designation for South Africa’s mixed-race communities — grew up in a place called Bonteheuwel.

We found his block, low houses cheek by jowl. Across the tracks lay Epping, a big industrial zone of factories and hangars. In between was open land. We zoomed in and saw them: the paths formed by people trekking between the two zones.

“I almost died there once,” Adams said. Urban planners call such tracks desire lines — a poetic technical term. But these ones got crossed by necessity. “I’ve been robbed there many times,” Adams said. “You knew going there that it was dangerous but you had to; you had to go and find a job or whatever you needed.”

We were at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Adams was installing his first museum exhibition in the United States, “Desire Lines.” His work features exquisite tapestries woven with thousands of beads — glass, stone, shell, acrylic, wood. The works are at first view entirely abstract. Yet they are thick with references — to home, to community, to the land. Many, indeed, retrace his own footfall.

Adams, 39, is currently in the main exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, with an immense woven piece, “Bonteheuwel/Epping,” with greenish and cream accents over pink dominant tones, in the Arsenale. Three broad diagonal streaks reproduce ones on the section of open land that he showed me. The tapestry is a stylized land-use document, a kind of map.

But the land is never neutral, especially in South Africa, where colonization, mining and apartheid produced extreme inequality — white people form nine percent of the population but still own 72 percent of arable land. So what you can do in the terrain hews close to what you can do in life.

“When I was growing up, there was a set ceiling for a Coloured person — you could become a manager at a shop, that was the height your aims could reach,” Adams told me. “Everyone had a clear path that was laid out for you. And so the desire line represents finding your own path.”

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