Amongst Men is ‘A genealogy of resistance brought full circle’
with Haroon Gunn-Salie
Translating community oral histories into interventions and installations, Haroon Gunn-Salie is a multidisciplinary artist, activist and cultural worker based in Cape Town, South Africa. Taking part in the 2023 Islamic Arts Biennale, Gunn-Salie presented his almost decade old, and still growing installation Amongst Men. A recereation of Imam Abdulla Haron’s funeral, which was attended by 40 000 mourners, the installation sees a thousand kufia casts suspended from the ceiling at varying heights. Featured in this week’s Re:View, we consider the impact its new context has.
There is a decolonial school of thought in contemporary art where an artist’s work is approached as a material means to meditate. Here, spiritually sensitive art practices are considered the answer to making art that is not governed by Western thought and the institutions that uphold it. In this context, the Western sense is where art is the result of talent, research and academic appraisal. In navigating practices from this standpoint, the assumption is that a set practice will produce a desired outcome, making the artist solely responsible for their fulfillment.
Embracing this perspective, the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale is centred around the theme of Awwal Bait. located at the epochal Hajj Terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, the biennale reads all cultural, intellectual and artistic achievements as having their origins in the House of Allah, Awwal Bait.
Sub-divided into two sections and several pavilions contemplating the various aspects and rituals of Muslim life, Haroon Gunn-Salie’s contribution exists in The Allotted Span.
Titled Amongst Men, this spatial intervention commemorates Imam Abdullah Haron’s life while depicting an intersection between Islam and resistant movement histories in South Africa. “To realise a light work about Imam Abdulla Haron in the city that made him, for the world’s first Islamic Arts Biennale, (is) a life’s work and a genealogy of resistance brought full circle,” said Gunn-Salie who described the opportunity as “the greatest honour of my career” on Instagram.
First conceptualised in 2014, Amongst Men was first seen as a part of Gunn-Salie’s solo debut at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg titled History after Apartheid (2015).
Recreating Haron’s funeral, which was attended by 40 000 mourners, the installation sees 400 kufia casts suspended from the ceiling at varying heights. Cast with marble aggregate and fiberglass, the sculptures embody the weight of mourning.
A structure explicitly created to commemorate a person or event that is relevant to a particular social group, monuments often encourage a vertical relationship where one is considered more superior to another. An invitation to become one of the mourners who have suffered a loss by standing in their company, Amongst Men positions itself as an alternative to monuments.
In the 2023 revision, Amongst Men presents a thousand individually cast kufia caps. Apart from warning audiences to not bump their heads into the sculptures, Gunn-Salie says, “The intention of the artwork is for people to be immersed in the installation.” Casting a range of shadows (some heavy, others light) onto the ground, the installation has an all encapsulating sense that encases its audience in a comforting cloud.
Sitting at 600 more kufia than the 2014 Amongst Men, the installation cements its function of enveloping its audience into the community during periods of grief.
A sore point visualising the losses of apartheid when it was first seen as a part of the History after Apartheid exhibition, at the Islamic Arts Centre the intervention offers a semblance of hope for those that the lost have left behind. Perhaps the result of the recent inquest into the Imam’s 1969 killing being reopened 53 years after his death or the biennale’s overall energy, the work’s current function reads leaps and bounds away from where it used to.