Paul Emmanuel’s Men and Monuments

Men and Monuments was on show for over a year at the Wits Art Museum 

Sadly this post is really a case of “closing the door after the horse has bolted” (in a manner of speaking) … or, put another way, “too little too late”.  I am ashamed to say that Emmanuel’s exhibition at Wits Art Museum opened OVER A YEAR ago in early March 2020. And I cannot remember why I did not attend the opening but I certainly cannot blame Lockdown.  Although I knew Emmanuel’s works and installations quite well and I joined a WAM webinar in July, I did not see the actual exhibition until a day before it was taken down at end of April this year.  And seeing the works “in the flesh” takes on a whole different resonance when referring to Emmanuel’s counter-memorials.  

The Lost Men series and counter-memorials 

There are 3 installations dealing with this theme: Grahamstown 2004; Mozambique 2007 and the Somme, France 2014. Emmanuel explains his The Lost Men series in the video made by Paul Mills at the WAM opening.  The Lost Men, Somme was installed at Thiepval as a counterpoint to Lutyen’s memorial (1928-32) which is the “largest commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world” and is seen at back right in the image below. 

The Lost Men France IV 2014 Pigment printed photo on archival paper. Collection of artist.  Edwin Lutyen’s monument is seen in the distance at the back right.  (In 1911 Lutyens designed the “Anglo-Boer” War Memorial at the Military Museum in Saxonwold Johannesburg.)

Emmanuel’s fabric banners, however, are ephemeral and transient in every sense – hence his term counter-memorial. Emmanuel: 

  • makes moulds of his body (various parts and in various positions)
  • painstakingly inserts letters into the mould recording names of soldiers who died in the battle of the Somme 
  • gets back into the mould to have the letters painfully pressed into his body 
  • is photographed while the imprints are still visible on his body
  • prints the photographs onto massive diaphanous transparent pieces of fabric
  • installs these as banners at battle sites, leaving them to blow in the wind and fade and tear over time 

Making a mould of Pauls’ curled body for The Lost Men, Somme Series. My photo is so grainy as it was photographed off the video on exhibition, a video showing Emmanuel’s working process
On exhibition was this mould of Emmanuel’s curled body with the letters of soldiers’ names. Each letter is individually attached to the inside of the mould with meticulous precision.
Detail of the letters inside the mould
The Lost Men France II 2014 Pigment printed photo on archival paper. Collection of the artist. Here, the photographed images of Paul’s “inscribed” body parts are printed onto fabric and installed in the fields at Thiepval.
Blowing in the wind The Lost Men France I 2014 pigment printed photo on archival paper. Collection of the artist.
The Lost Men France III 2014 Pigment printed photo on archival paper. Collection of the artist.
Newly printed banners on the wall of WAM from the Mozambique The Lost Men Series 2007 with the weathered banners in the foreground as well as one of the moulds of Emmanuel’s partial body on the floor

Memorialized in photographs and etchings 

So while Emmanuel’s The Lost Men counter-memorials gradually dissolve and decay at the mercy of the elements, what remains are the works on this exhibition – large scale photographs of the original installations; some original banners (tattered and frayed); as well as newly printed ones; a video with ghosts of past soldiers evocatively filmed removing clothing to reveal Emmanuel’s naked imprinted body; some exquisite hand incised photographs; and some etchings. They are powerful traces of loss, violence, and grief as well as a reminder of so many who fought bravely for the Empire and died without acknowledgement – without acknowledgement simply because of the colour of their skin. 

Path to Collective Amnesia, Somme 2018 Hand incised, exposed, Kodac colour, photographic, acid free paper. Apologies for the reflections on the left of other works on exhibition. Photographing works behind glass is a challenge without the correct equipment.
Scar 2015 Chine colle photogravure etching on 300 gsm Hahnemuhle paper
Detail of Scar 2015

In reality the landscape usually erases its own history. In these etchings, with names etched into the represented forest floor, Emmanuel has belied this erasure. 



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4 thoughts on “Paul Emmanuel’s Men and Monuments

  1. So sorry I missed that final walkabout, grateful I have a copy of his book.

  2. You write so beautifully – thank you. I also joined the webinar last year and then never got to see the exhibition in the flesh. 🙈 Your blog, however, brings it back to life in my mind.

  3. Gosh Liz you capture the feeling of the work so eloquently! It makes me feel I should have seen it ! Thank you for making it so vivid in my mind.

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