South African artist Paul Emmanuel’s “Transitions,” an installation of five drawings and the critically acclaimed film 3SAI: A Rite of Passage, will open at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art May 12 and continue through Aug. 22. The exhibition, which debuted in 2008 at The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, addresses issues of identity, particularly those of a young white male living in post-apartheid South Africa. This is the first North American stop for the exhibition and video presentation. Both were very well received throughout South Africa, and the film has been featured in international film festivals where it garnered high praise.
“This provocative exhibition by Paul Emmanuel continues the tradition at the Museum of African Art of showcasing the work of South African artists and attests to that country’s prominence as a dynamic center of outstanding contemporary art,” explains Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator. “In addition, the exhibition puts a spotlight on the wonderful art of drawing.”
“Transitions” comprises a series of five ostensibly “photographic” works which, when examined closely, reveal sensitively hand-drawn, photo-realist images on photographic paper. The works contemplate manhood and the transitions an individual goes through in society.
The adjacent video installation explores the liminal moments of transition, when a young man is either voluntarily or forced to let go of one identity and take on a new identity as property of the state. The 14-minute film documents the head shaving of new recruits at the Third South African Infantry Battalion (3SAI) in Kimberley, one of two South African military training camps that still perform the obligatory hair shaving of army recruits joining the South African National Defence Force.
Emmanuel has explained why he sought to capture this particular moment in a young South African man’s life: “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….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.”
For the artist, such observed moments raise questions about what one actually witnesses in such rites of passage and how these and similar “rituals” help to form and perpetuate identities and belief systems throughout history. Why is one so powerfully drawn to and transfixed by these dramatic spectacles of subtle change and moments of suspended possibility and impossibility?
A graduate of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand in 1993, Emmanuel was the first recipient of the prestigious Ampersand Fellowship, which recognizes emerging South African artists and supports a residency in New York. He was born in Zambia and lives and works in Johannesburg. Of “Transitions,” the artist has said, “The production of this body of work is a love affair with concept and surface.”
The artist and exhibition organizer Les Cohn of Art Source South Africa will discuss “Transitions” Saturday, May 15, at 1 p.m. in the gallery. The program is free and open to the public.
Posted: 3 May 2010