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 bear witness to an unfolding drama. After some research, I discovered that there were only two remaining military bases in South Africa which still perform this obligatory "rite of passage" on their bases, one in Oudtshoorn and the other at the Third South African Infantry Battalion (3SAI) in Kimberley. I phoned the Kimberley base, spoke to the Officer-in-Command and arranged a visit to photograph head shavings from the January 2005 intake.
I remember feeling apprehensive of what I would find. I was not conscripted for 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.
These liminal moments of transition, when a young man--whether voluntarily or forced--lets go of one identity and takes on a new identity as State Property with an assigned Force Number, prompted me to ask many questions: What was I actually witnessing? What is a "rite of passage" and how have similar "rituals" helped to form and perpetuate identities and belief systems throughout history? Why was I so powerfully drawn to and transfixed by these dramatic spectacles of subtle change and moments of suspended possibility and impossibility?
And so began an intensely reflexive outward and inward journey, in and beyond my studio, which was to last four long years . . .
Conversations on the Transience of Light (Art Source, 2008)
b. 1969, Kabwe, Zambia
A graduate of South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand (1993), Paul Emmanuel employs various media, including photography and film, to address issues of identity, particularly as a young white male living in post-apartheid South Africa.
In 1997 Emmanuel became the first recipient of the prestigious Ampersand Fellowship, which recognizes emerging South African artists and supports a residency in New York. His first solo show at the Open Window Gallery in Pretoria (2000) was followed by three solo exhibitions in the Western Cape and Johannesburg (200305). In 2002 Emmanuel received first prize for Air on the Skin in the national Sasol Wax in Art Competition.
His The Lost Men Project, an outdoor memorial installation commemorating fallen soldiers, does not glorify war but rather emphasizes transience, loss and the fleeting nature of memory and questions notions of masculinity. Launched in 2004 to public acclaim in Grahamstown, South Africa, The Lost Men Project has been installed in Mozambique (2007) and the island of Sylt in Germany (2009). Transitions premiered at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in September 2008.
Paul Emmanuel lives and works in Johannesburg.