... copying my own photographic recordings of transient moments in a vain attempt to uncover what really happened ...
“In late 2004 I was exploring how the military influenced and perpetuated notions of masculinity in South Africa. One morning, while thinking about moments of change, I decided to photograph an actual military recruit head shaving while it was happening – to witness to an unfolding drama. After some research, I discovered that there were only two remaining military bases in South Africa which still perform this obligatory ‘rite of passage’ on their premises, one in Oudtshoorn and the other, Third South African Infantry Battalion (3SAI) in Kimberley. I phoned the Kimberley base, spoke to the Officer-in-Command and arranged a visit to photograph head shavings from the January 2005 intake.
I remember feeling apprehensive of what I would find. I did not do military service. I only had references to military experiences told to me by my older brother and friends, who described their head shaving experiences of the apartheid military regime of the 1980s – their stories of feeling dehumanised, lots of shouting, indifference, bigotry and fear.
Instead, I found a very different setting ... quiet lawns with well tended flower beds full of roses. Lines of recruits waiting patiently. No shouting. No authoritarianism. No evidence of the violent breaking down of the human spirit. Compared with the horror stories related to South Africa’s past, the equanimity of the scene was arresting. I was spellbound.
These liminal moments of transition, when a young man either voluntarily – or is forced to – let go of one identity and take on a new identity as State Property with an assigned Force Number, prompted me to ask many questions: What was I actually witnessing? What is a “Rite of Passage” and how have similar “rituals” helped to form and perpetuate identities and belief systems throughout history? Why was I so powerfully drawn to and transfixed by these dramatic spectacles of subtle change and moments of suspended possibility and impossibility?
And so began an intensely reflexive outward and inward journey, in and beyond my studio, which was to last four long years ...”
Paul Emmanuel 2008
BACKGROUND TO THE WORK
In previous and concurrent works, namely The Lost Men Project and after-image, the artist produced installations and a major drawing engaged with public and private loss, memory and constructions of male identity. His interest in the ‘documentary’ nature of photography and the printmaking concept of leaving impressions, have informed new works over the past three years.
Transitions comprises a series of five ostensibly ‘photographic’ works which, when examined closely, are revealed as sensitively hand-drawn, photo-realist sequences of images. These film-like progressions obsessively capture liminal moments of five transitory stages in life.
In an attempt to hold on to a significant and fleeting moment the artist has obsessively scratched away the black exposed and processed emulsion of photographic paper, drawing with a fine steel blade to carefully reveal, in a process of photo-realist rendering, every shadow, every highlight. Portentous events, (observed by the artist) – which take minutes in situ to capture on light sensitive material – (the photographs), are painstakingly recaptured, and have been drawn over a period of three years in his studio. The rust coloured mid-tones are revealed and derived from the photographic emulsion being partially worn away by little more than the weight of the blade.
A sixth work titled 3 SAI A Rite of Passage – a twelve minute film produced by the artist documents the head shaving of new recruits at the Third South African Infantry Battalion (3–SAI) in Kimberley. This is one of two South African military training camps which still performs the obligatory hair shaving of army recruits when they join the South African National Defence Force.
The Transitions exhibition creates through a poignant visual and aural experience for the viewer, a contemplative space to meditate on transitory life stages. It aims to stimulate thoughts on patriarchy and poses questions around perceptions of masculinity, the passage of time and the human condition.
Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg: 1 Oct – 31 Dec 2008
Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein: 15 Jan – 31 Mar 2009
William Humphreys Art Museum, Kimberley 15 April – 15 May 2009
KZNSA Gallery, Durban: 2 – 21 June 2009
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown: 2 – 11 July 2009