Paul Emmanuel :: Artist Statement

Substance of shadows

The only certainty is change. We try to hold onto memories in the hope of maintaining some coherence and continuity, but our memories are largely inventions, and they too change over time. We commemorate our invented pasts in an attempt to fix them in the present. We even impose them on the generations that come after us, linking them to the past through anniversaries, memorials, pilgrimages and rites of passage, in an attempt to bind their lives to ours. Ultimately we know more about the grand narratives we create about the past than the past itself. We cannot hold onto the substance of the past. It has been recycled, re-purposed and reinvented. Our memories are poor, distorted, sentimental and superstitious copies.

This exhibition is a body of works scratched by hand onto delicate carbon ‘paper’ or film that continue to explore my fascination with the tenuous nature of memory. These carbon ‘shadows’ are all metaphors for carbon copies and products of one of life’s greatest narratives – the carbon cycle.

Carbon is an element in nature and the basic unit for all life. It is a key ingredient to heredity, the passing on of physical traits, like skin, eye and hair colour to offspring from parents and their ancestors. I am drawn to carbon’s metaphorical power to speak of what may have been physically and culturally transferred to me from my heritage.

In 2014, I pursued a deep interest, researching the shadows of people that had been burned onto ruined city walls by the heat and light of the atomic blasts on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. What remained were carbon shadows, ghosts of the past, fixed onto ruins in the present.

This research led me to the Pelindaba Atomic Research Facility north of Johannesburg, South Africa. There are rumours that the enriched uranium used for these bombs originated there. These rumours enhanced my sense of connection as a South African artist to Hiroshima. I later had a dream, perhaps linked to this, in which I saw myself peeled from my own skin, as if I was discarding a burnt, blackened outer covering. This stimulated my ideas of scratching away a thin black layer from a piece of diaphanous, skin-like carbon ‘paper’ or film – the carbon paper, reminiscent of the burnt, soot-like residue left on the walls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Carbon paper is obsolete and as a material, it speaks to me. Like making carbon copies by using carbon paper, the older generation is perceived to have little remaining validity in our present digital age. The last roll of black carbon paper ever produced in this country was sourced, as there is a limited demand for this product. I experimented on the carbon paper by scratching an image onto it to see if the technique worked, practically, creatively and conceptually. The carbon paper was left unrecognisable, appearing like a delicate piece of fabric.

On the bodies of some Hiroshima survivors, the patterns on the clothing they were wearing, were burnt onto their skin. Unlike the decorations a soldier might wear which commemorate heroic performance, these were imposed ‘decorations’.

I began to experiment with creating images of my own body emblazoned with ‘shadows’ – both in the form of an imposed inherited system of uniform (eg. a school blazer) and contemporary consumer brands influenced by consumer marketing. My awareness grew of how many of the brands people choose to wear, for added perceived value and status, are based on the plant and animal motifs of the heraldry that was used to decorate the victorious, eg. the laurel leaves of the Olympic Games and throughout history in war.

On a research visit to the Johannesburg crematorium I confronted the unadorned, lifeless body. I witnessed an autopsy conducted on an old man, stripped of any identifying markers, systematically reduced to nothing more than an impersonal piece of flesh, neatly sectioned for forensic investigation. It was a visceral, sobering and profound experience. This stimulated a comparison of the status of an unadorned body with that of the body adorned with the brands (carbon shadows of a sort) of consumer society.