Ex Unitate Vires
Original drawing, hand incised, perforated carbon paper, carbon residue
63 x 73cm
Overview; An image of the artist’s body, from neck to lower abdomen, is inscribed on black carbon paper. Over the figure’s center chest is inscribed the old seal of the Union of South Africa (and later the Republic of South Africa) with its Latin motto: “Ex Unitate Vires” (Union is Strength). Heraldic floral components from the old seal are reproduced across the figure, which is primarily rendered in a light shade, with the exception of the figure’s left arm and flank, which are much darker, close to the pigment of the original carbon paper. The field surrounding the body is nearly white, punctuated or perforated by tiny dots of black.
In 2015, I found the last roll of black carbon paper ever produced in this country, as a limited demand for this product remains. 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, looking like a delicate piece of fabric.
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. I became aware 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.
Ex Unitate Vires (literally "from Unity, Strength") is a Latin phrase formerly used as the national motto of the coat of arms granted to the Union of South Africa by King George V. Ex Unitate Vires was originally translated as "Union is Strength" but was later revised in 1961 to mean "Unity is Strength".
This artwork will be featured in the solo exhibition Paul Emmanuel: Substance of Shadows at The University of Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2021.
|Coat of Arts of South Africa, 1932-2000|
Pamela Allara: We depend on artists to make us examine what we routinely overlook, and Paul Emmanuel’s “Ex Unitate Vires” asks us to ponder the former seal of the Union of South Africa, an emblem in use from 1910-2000.I think one can assume that among the general populace of any country, interest in and knowledge of its official seals is relatively low. However, when Emmanuel emblazons the seal on his naked torso in an image painstakingly scratched from carbon paper, attention is demanded. The seal’s imagery does feel relatively straightforward: after all, one would anticipate the use of South African wildlife: in this instance, a springbok and an antelope hold up the escutcheon, above which is perched a lion holding four bars representing the four original provinces of South Africa. But Emmanuel has chosen the ‘embellished’ 1932 version, with flowering plants sprouting on either side of the lion. And these flowering forms in turn, appear to have blown across the rest of the artist’s body, like scattered flowers on a gravesite. Both the seal and the flowers become memorials to a past, that as we know, is never past.
Motivated by Emmanuel’s art, I took the trouble to look up the seal of the United States. It was designed and adopted 128 years before South Africa’s: in 1782. But its motto is much the same: “E Pluribus Unum” and of course it bears our national animal: the eagle. Boring so far, but what is truly interesting that our seal is officially called “The Great Seal of the United States.” The seal was meant to indicate the nation’s greatness from its founding. That insistence on inflating the name of the seal may be the unfortunate historical precedent for the use of “Great’ at present to refer to a mythological past an ignorant leader vows to restore.
Mark Auslander: In two previous major works created through carbon paper, Veil 1954 and carbon dad 2017, Paul Emmanuel deployed this archaic technology of replication to explore the mysteries of biological and psychological reproduction, especially in reference to deceased parents: what traces do children bear of their mothers and father, and how do we attach and detach ourselves from their continuous absence presences? What in turn is being reproduced in Ex Unitate Vires, probing the enduring legacies of a largely forgotten defunct national seal and motto, and what weight does that shadowy reproduction have upon the national psyche left in its wake?
One point of departure is Franz Kafka’s 1919 short story "In the Penal Colony" ("In der Strafkolonie”). The tale centers on a horrific apparatus of execution which inscribes onto the body of the condemned the words of the commandment he has violated (which the prisoner may not even be conscious of violating). In principle, close to his death, the condemned man comes to “read” his crime through pain inflicted on his own skin, and thus dies having attained, in his final moment, the knowledge of his transgression impressed violently into his own flesh.
It is possible to read Paul Emmanuel’s assemblage Ex Unitate Vires in precisely these terms. The previous South African regime continuously violated its own motto, "From Unity, Strength.” As George VI is said to have remarked during his 1947 tour, shocked at indignities of racial segregation, upon seeing the coat of arms on a train table cloth, “Huh, not much bloody Unitate.”
Following the South African War, the ostensible “Union” of South Africa in 1910, referenced the formal integration of the English-speaking and Africaans-speaking polities of the region. But this “Unitate” masked a fundamental disunion, as the black majority was disenfranchised and saw more and more of their own land subject to white control. In that sense, the coloration of Emmanuel’s torso, figured as a rather archaic map, is historically salient : the shoulders, chest, right arm and right side of the torso are covered in white, and a lesser portion, primarily the left arm and left midriff, remain black.
Emmanuel’s body standing at attention can be seen as embodying generations of South African soldiers, of different races, sent into battle in Europe, southwest Africa, and in the townships on behalf of the national project. The work could equally be read as rendering visible systematic violence perpetrated by Apartheid-era security forces on actual bodies (primarily, but not only, black)l in the name of the principles of Unity and (masculine) Strength, through which thousands of persons were quite literally consigned to the shadows. (Although this may not be an explicit reference to Emmanuel’s carbon paper-based work, I am reminded of Paul Stopforth’s stunning Steve Biko series, especially his 1980 “Elegy, in which a finely worked graphite surface renders hauntingly beautiful the circulated autopsy images of the martyred Black Consciousness leader.)
In Ex Unitate Vires, the artist can be seen as intentionally subjecting himself to a latter-day version of Kafka’s penal apparatus of needle sharp writing, in an act that may hover somewhere between atonement and acknowledgement. Inscribed on his torso is precisely the commandment that the nation violated, both in the time of the Union and under the Republic prior to 1994. “Unity” was more observed in the breach for at least eight decades, and, one might argue, has been more of an aspiration than an achievement in the nation during the quarter century since the first democratic elections of 1994.
As the current Covid-19 pandemic and the associated Lockdown makes abundantly and painfully clear, the great majority of the nation’s populace, nearly all low-income people of color, continue to endure conditions of enormous privation and vulnerability. In contrast to the relative islands of (primarily white) class privilege, inhabited by those who are able to work remotely and limit their exposure to the novel coronavirus, those in the townships, temporary locations, and isolated rural areas by and large have little freedom to observe social distancing protocols, and have highly limited access to the soap, running water, and personal protective equipment mandated by public safety campaigns. The national community may confront a common enemy in SARS-CoV-2, but there remains preciously little “unitate” in how these dangers are experienced on the ground.
(Although Emmanuel began work on this complex, painstaking work well before the current pandemic, the proliferating heraldic devices scattered across the mapped body through our current eyes may take on the spectral apparition of the virus itself, endlessly proliferating and spreading through the landscape.)
As in The Lost Men, Paul Emmanuel lends his own body as a dynamic canvas onto which are impressed the inescapable lessons of the past. Here, like the Officer in Kafka’s horrific tale of bureaucratic discipline, the artist intentionally enters into the apparatus of History, onto which the violated commandment of unity is inscribed directly over the heart of the body politic.
Having said that, the work could also be read as evoking subtly, the post 2000 national motto "ǃke e꞉ ǀxarra ǁke" (ǀXam: Unity Through Diversity”. There are many ironies to the new postcolonial motto, not least that given the extinct status of this specific Khoisan language, it is unclear if this phrase would have been considered idiomatic or grammatically correct by the language’s vanished indigenous speakers. The phrase, as noble as it is, remains in a sense unknowably embedded in an ancient landscape that long proceeded the imposition of European rule and demarcations. Radiating out from the formally designed Coat of Arms over the torso’s heart, the constituent floral elements of the seal gradually dissolve, like blossoms blowing across the landscape, growing ever fainter as they reach the most blackened (indigenous?) expanses of the body’s extremities. It may be that the springbok, gemsbok, and lion, confined for nearly a century within the baroque confines of the Coat of Arms’ heraldic conventions, are themselves breaking free and leaping across an unconstrained landscape.
Perhaps that is what is being recovered through Emmanual’s nearly magical form of automatic writing, reproducing that which we have so long been unable to see. We glimpse a return of that which was long effaced by colonial schemas of representation and signification, apprehending the resurgence of other ways of knowing, which the land, and the body, still retain sensible access to, against all odds, across the layered sheafs of time.
Ellen Schastschneider: In this work, Paul Emmanuel continues his nuanced exploration of the contradictions and vulnerabilities of masculinity. The headless torso has phallic attributes, a logic reinforced by the male lion and the upstanding springbok and gemsbok antelopes, consistent with the emphasis in classical heraldry on masculine prowess. Yet the absence of a head at the top and the cut-off of the figure just above the groin might suggest the risk of castration or of diminished virility and strength (the "Vires" of the title.) It may be that the absent head is refracted in the abdominal region of the torso as a miniature face: the navel or belly button could be read as an eye, embedded in a face in profile facing to the right. If so, it may be significant that this solitary "eye" is formed by the enduring trace of the umbilical cord that bound this male being to his mother: the seat of knowledge of the world is inextricably bound up with the feminine principle.
As it happens, the oldest device in the upper left quadrant of the shield or escutcheon, held aloft by the standing horned antelopes, is the Maiden or Lady of Hope grasping an anchor, a symbol of the Cape Colony dating back to 1715. (The older term, the Cape of Storms, had been replaced with the more attractive phrase, "Cape of Good Hope," with the expectation of drawing more settlers to the region.) The anchor is an ancient Christian symbol of hope, dating back to the Roman era of persecution and hidden worship; it evokes both the crucifix, and, it is sometimes said, the female-coded crescent moon, implying the sanctuary of a nurturing safe harbor in a storm-tossed world. Emmanuel may well find it appropriate that at the heart of this hyper-masculine device, long associated with martial violence, conquest, and domination, are found evocations of the divine feminine.
At the conclusion of The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell characterizes his work of literary and cultural criticism as excavating "our buried lives." Paul Emmanuel, in his own registers, is committed to comparable works of excavation, in which his own body, or the bodies of those he loves, figure as canvas, multilayered landscape, and even, as Pam suggests, a kind of living graveyard. In The Lost Men France, as noted above, Emmanuel physically pressed the rediscovered written names of soldiers of the Great War into his flesh, embodying their distant absent presence as a way of honoring and recovering their enduring, dimly apprehended legacies in our present world. In Ex Unitate Vires, he carefully excavates his own bodily image, refracted on the delicate shroud-like surface of carbon paper. In so doing he reveals, tattooed over the body's heart, the now defunct national signifier of state-sponsored masculinity, the Coat of Arms. Digging deeper, he takes us traveling into a realm where the old certainties, predicated on the triumph of patriarchal, heteronormative whiteness over its antitheses, dissolve and fluidly recombine. Out of a mythic "unity" that long denied sexual, gender and racial diversities, a newer and deeper unity is being unearthed from our buried lives, and, at long last, is ready to be born on the turbulent surface of the national body.
Paul Fussell, 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press.
Paul Fussell, 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press.