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.
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
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.
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.