30.01 - 27.02.2021
I first had the privilege of seeing Rory Emmett’s work in 2019, when he participated in the opening selection for the annual group show ‘KWAAI’ at Eclectica Contemporary. He’d selected images from his 2017 series Coloured Photo Album which had the audience transfixed as he navigated and named the flaws of the phrase ‘rainbow nation’, using the colours of our newest national flag to take the place of the faces and skin surfaces of family members arranged in portraits based off of his personal archives. In his deliberate recreation of his own history, and his pointed translation of the effects on those oppressed by either state of the nation, Emmett not only established a synonymous style, but tapped into a conceptual and literal process which set the precedent for his latest body of work titled ‘HEWN’ at 99 Loop Gallery, some four years later.
The meaning of the word itself extends Emmett’s artistic approach of deft deconstruction; as to ‘hew’ is to ‘chop and cut’, underlining his commitment to delving further with each effort into every nuance of a multifaceted identity existing in the oscillating drum of diversity – and adversity – which this country prides itself on. “I’ve been exploring various creative approaches in working with paradoxical ideas of solidity and malleability in surface and extending these concepts to form,” Emmett explains in the prologue of HEWN’s catalogue.
Echoing the intention of the archival elements of his 2017 body of work, he incorporates his father’s used drop sheets as the foundation for his Landscape series where he uses paint and wood as well. It is this human element, this tangible, knowing aspect he chooses to include in his work that adds depth to the dimension of the world in which his work exists. Knowledge that serves to remind us of the realities that inspire his craft. There is a sense of tethering that reaches between each work, connecting them by colour and concept throughout the exhibition, as well as extending this reach even further, back to his prior offerings. He goes on to say that, “these visual enquiries have been cathartic, as they’ve allowed me to further explore ideas of nationalism, identity, labour, value and materiality within painting and art-making processes more generally.”
A collection of ceramic figurines coloured familiarly with the hues of the flag dot the floor of the exhibition space under the title Formation. The presence of these small bodies of ceramics and paint speak to the scale of consideration in Emmett’s ongoing conversations about intersecting identities, lives, histories, cultures, and the like. How, even by pacifying ourselves with the knowledge of our similarities, we must not dismiss the value and reality of our differences. Each figurine is unique to itself, even as its marked by similar processes to its kin. The superficial gleaning of its sentiment is obvious, but just after follows the notion remembering the piece’s title, leading the audience to consider how easily we’ve dismissed the language of the individual in an effort to create a nationwide sense of harmony among ourselves.
Here, one starts to consider the limitations of being in formation, so to speak; of existing in a space that doesn’t serve you as you are, but as part of a larger whole in which you are not wholly recognised, and are in fact aspiring to assimilation instead of being specifically, and mindfully catered to as a human being. The permeating violence of this idea of oneness juxtaposed by the essence of what these figurines draw from in Emmett’s artistic history, creates a point of tension that illuminates so succinctly the reality many South Africans are subjected to. It speaks to the value of the lived experience in the discussions surrounding those lived experiences, and it asks the audience to look, and look again – to see more than a sea of similarity, and pay attention to the tributes of divergence.
The final series in this solo exhibition is also titled Hewn, a trio comprised of oil and spray paint on canvas, which also includes wood, resin and cement materials in its construction. The texture and contrasting colours used in this series allow Emmett’s eye for subversive detail to be showcased anew, highlighting his technique outside of his understanding of more vibrant pigments and the human silhouette. Here, the focus shifts onto the fact of deconstruction; the looming ambiguity that is the first to rise following the undoing of form.
The magic that exists here invites the audience in with its shapelessness, and its openness, while the intrinsic effort of space-making in building a metaphysical place in which future ideas will live is apparent, too. The conceptual anatomising and the process of his decoding become the feel and flecks and bursts of paint for Emmett. They are evidence to the power of Emmett’s ability to fashion settings with the capacity to house these complex themes and thought lines. Being the title of the show as well, it indicates an aspect to Rory Emmett’s artistry that continues to define his work: an absolute dedication to the detail of the human experience that is both validating and radicalising at once.