Carbon dad 2017 (2020)

Hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon residue. Perspex rail.

110 x 440 cm

R 1 344 065

I have represented my own body in many of my works in the process of grappling with masculinity, troubling my own culture’s gender norms. In Carbon dad I chose to represent my father’s body. A body that had such power over me all my life. A body that copied part of his biology into me. A person that attempted to copy his culture, modelling what it meant to be a man in ways in which I did not resonate. A male physical presence that asserted itself whenever I spoke or moved in ways that were contrary to its expectations. “Stop acting Paul!” A body my father surrendered in the end to my unavoidably feminine care.

At the age of 93, a few months before he died, he reluctantly agreed to pose naked for a photograph. “I think you’re being too arty,” he said as his only resistance to my request for him to risk such vulnerability. I remember explaining to him that I wouldn’t ask him to do anything that I hadn’t done myself. Not much of a comfort I imagine, as he knew I was willing to expose myself in ways most men would not dare. He knew the photograph would become a reference for an artwork, to be copied later by my hand, probably sometime after his death. “Don’t hold your hand like that,” he would say, exasperated. Posing for the camera was an act of sacrificing himself and his dignity to his shrill-voiced, limp-wristed, artist of a son. That sacrifice left me with the burden of responding through the creation of a sacred shroud. Did he agree because he knew it would bind me to a ritual of remembering? I wonder.

As I revealed his image, I thought about the strange intimacy that emerged between us at the end of his life, how I tended to his frequent skin abrasions, cutting his twisted toenails, massaging his feet, helping his frail form to remember a brittle and feeble version of himself. My scratches recreated scars from injuries he received as a footballer in his twenties, a knee replacement in his seventies and a pacemaker operation in his eighties. The act of inscribing millions of overlapping lines to try and define the surface of my father’s wrinkled form became a meditation. Each monotonous but mindful scratch removed more of the carbon film, the way the surface of a relic is abraded with the constant rubbing of devout pilgrim hands. If the delicate skin-like carbon paper was pierced in the process, I left the tears as they were.

As a child educated in a Catholic school, I was often told that the images imprinted on the Holy Shroud of Turin, (for me, like the Hiroshima shadows), “were miraculously burned onto the fabric by an unknown mysterious flash of Divine light and energy.” As my father’s shroud took shape – with the exact dimensions of the Turin Shroud and a play of shadow and light – the carbon residue that had been scraped away slowly piled up around it. I reflected on the carbon at the heart of organic chemistry, and tried to find the molecules that connected my life to his.

Whilst born in Johannesburg as Emile Joseph Emmanuel, my father’s identity was firmly rooted in his father’s hometown, Qartaba, in Lebanon. He identified first and foremost as a Maronite Catholic Lebanese man. His father, Naieff, had come to South Africa after World War I looking for work. My father returned to live in Qartaba with his parents when he was a boy. Emile later travelled to Zambia where he met my mother, Joy Erasmus/Mendoza, who had relocated there from Natal. I was born in Kabwe (formerly Broken Hill) in 1969 and we moved to South Africa when I was 4, where I grew up. My parents’ relationship was fraught with challenges, but they persevered.

It took over a year to create Carbon dad, simultaneously interrogating my memories of him silencing me throughout much of my life and honouring him for allowing me to grow close to him at the end of his. For me, Carbon dad is a meditation on copies, imperfect copies vainly defying the inevitable impermanence of it all – a failed attempt to recapture a moment, inscribed into the black carbon of transfer paper.

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[Photographs by Paul Emmanuel and University of Johannesburg]