2015 Shannen Hill
WEARING WAR, SILENCING SOLDIERS: ART, THE BODY AND RECOVERED HISTORIES IN SOUTH AFRICA, European Conference on African Studies, Paris-Sorbonne University, France, July 2015

As this is research in progress, do not cite without my permission. Thank you.


1: Every war has its unknown soldiers. While many remain so, the histories of some are recovered, or given new life, in visual form. This paper examines how artists have brought to light histories of servicemen that the South African state either denied or dismissed, effectively censoring their existence from the public. Most attention is given to border wars of the 1970s staged in Angola and Mozambique, places where the so-called Cold War ran quite hot. Called “civil wars,” these nations were in fact torn apart by parties from without. The two artists I chose – South Africans Colin Richards and Paul Emmanuel – aim to recover histories that have been covered over by their nation. Their modes differ, but both are body-based and as such they engage performance-based strategies that seem particularly well suited to considerations of war. For although much attention is paid to the ways that Emmanuel, for instance, recovers names of fallen servicemen in his work, he reminds us that “it’s not all about names. It’s about missing bodies. They’re still finding missing bodies” on land that bears little trace of battle.(1)


2: Colin Richards made two works in 1996 that stemmed from his deployment to Angola twenty years earlier as a conscript in South Africa’s infantry. (And it must be said the nation had no movement of conscientious objectors at the time.) He expected to be sent to what was then South-West Africa, but his unit wound up much further north, near Luanda, battling a war in which his government denied any part.(2) In early 1976, he was among the 12,000 soldiers South Africa deployed to Angola to prevent its elected governing party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, from gaining full independence.(3) As a young man, the artist was, as he described it, “shocked” to realize the collusion of church and state in deceiving young conscripts to war. Thus he and others began to secretly collect items that could prove they had been sent to Angola. He described this performance:


3: “I remember desperately collecting and concealing objects taken in Angola and the operational area. We were explicitly forbidden by the military to take any material which might be linked to our activities in Angola. Amongst the items I eventually managed to smuggle out were a Cuban army jacket, two shotgun rounds stamped as made in Luanda, the clasp of bullets… and a pair of leather ammunition pouches. Many of my compatriots also collected material…. It was very important then to some of us to secure physical proof of having been in Angola…. I simply wore the jacket, putting some live rounds in my water bottle and sewing some in the lining of my poncho I wore over my jacket.”(4)


4: Twenty years later, he included one of the items he spirited away, the clasp of bullets, in a work simply called Angola 1976. It sits on the lower register beside a medal he was given for service in a war that officially never took place. Between them is a metal heart rimmed by flames from a Catholic relic found in Venice. The paradoxical trio is mounted on a photograph of the wall upon which the finished work was originally hung,


5: Castle grounds, troops, installation within the Castle of Good Hope, which since 1678 has been the center of military command in the Cape.(5) It was made along with Invalid Cup Series, below, to which I will return momentarily, for the exhibition, Fault Lines: Inquiries into Truth and Reconciliation. As such, inclusion of a photograph of the castle wall itself underscores the doubling that attends doubt: historical recall, relics of war, and the truths to which they seemingly attest. As Richards told me, the experiences they encompass recall quote “violence and deception on a scale that disfigured reality (perhaps irretrievably and permanently).”(6)


6: To draw the attention to the troubling properties of recollections, relics and reproduction in pursuit of an allusive recovery, he photocopied the photograph of the wall and pasted it above the metal trio at bottom. The upper register of Angola 1976 casts this doubt most explicitly since the objects, already in contest with one another, do not appear above their labels. One might imagine this trio to represent a foundational moment in the artist’s life since he described the period they represent, life in the military, as quote “the single most traumatic experience publically I’ve ever had to go through.”


7: Several bodies of this artist’s work came together for the Fault Lines exhibition, and the combat-based pair was installed in a small nook with steps leading nowhere. The intimacy of this space surely also appealed because of the deeply personal history presented here. While materials within Angola 1976 were secretly stashed on the artist’s body twenty years prior, Invalid Cup Series required a performance – a daily ritual, actually – that took place over the course of the exhibition. As Jennifer Law has discussed, invalid cups are used to aid the less well among us – the infirm, the helpless, the bedridden, the weak – and the word “in-valid” means defective.(7) To this I add that it also means erroneous or untrue, and in this way it relates most readily to the work with which it was staged here.


8: Richards began by filling each tin cup with maize seeds planted in earth from the Castle grounds, which he surround with cotton wool. Above these he placed bottles filled with different materials. From left, soil and water, referring to land and fertility; next, urine, smoke and mirror to reference deceitful practices. A third bottle contained milk and honey, allusions to the Promised Land described by early Dutch settlers in southern Africa. The last bottle held tar and feathers, a trope for informers, collaborators and complicity.


9: At first Richards carefully nurtured the seeds with water drawn from the Castle moat to bring about their germination. He then abandoned this practice to assure that the budding plants would wither and die. So, too, did the milk sour, the tar harden and the urine putrefy. This quiet performance extended over days, but was enacted without fanfare. Its tone was of a ritual compelled by and for the artist alone.


10: The changed chemistry within the glasses and cups was important as it evidenced life in a dead thing through the mutations of decay.(8) Seeds grew into leaves, thus satisfying the need to make the invisible seen, then moved toward death until, at last, invisibly prevailed as the tin cups became what he called fingers “coffins.” I note, too, that maize is among Angola’s staple crops, the production of which declined 40% during the fourteen years South Africa battled upon its land.(9) The transparency of the bottles above versus the opacity of the tin below matched the double registers of Angola 1976 in that both suggested honesty by degree in what was, for him as a conscripted teenager, its complete lack. As he once said to me, quote “I always felt unprepared for the shock of the world.”(10)


11: Staged here for an exhibition that considered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Richards’s military based works engaged theories of trauma and repetition that I delve into more deeply elsewhere. Its performative elements – those that relied upon his body – reflect on what remains missing within traumatic moments, rather than on what may be recovered. Their pairing here, one fixed in suspended doubt, the other ever changing to challenge fixed notions, reverberates with the overlooked, the repressed, the self-censored. In our lengthy discussion of the multiple ways in which conscription proved personally traumatic, Richards described the effort to prove South Africa’s presence in Angola thus: “We thought no-one would believe what was happening, and perhaps we ourselves would ultimately question our own memories.”(11) Performing Invalid Cup Series below Angola 1976 registered the ongoing gap within traumatic memory rather than attempting to fill it.


12: Mozambique was also targeted by then Defense Minister P.W. Botha when it gained independence from Portugal in 1975. By 1978 Botha had became Prime Minister and instigated a fingers “total strategy” policy that, among other things, heightened South Africa’s deliberate destabilization of newly liberated boarder nations.(12) Part two of this paper explores Mozambique’s censorship of this history through the body-based works of Paul Emmanuel’s Lost Men Project mounted in Maputo in 2007. In our recent interview, Emmanuel revealed that the French incarnation of this ongoing, multi-national installation also faced censorship when staged in the small town of Authuille in northern France, thus I will discuss it, too.


13: The Lost Men Project aims to recover histories of South African servicemen whose names have been censored from public record. First realized in 2004, the Grahamstown installation recorded the names and ranks of men who died in the Xhosa Wars fought here between 1820 and 1850.

Each incarnation of Lost Men requires considerable archival research for the artist as he resources names of the forgotten fallen in archives and journals written by combatants who survived.(13) In the first two installations Emmanuel commissioned the creation of embossed lead cast plates that list the names he selected. Of course, lengthy negotiations also take place with host nations over the site to be used.


14: In the studio, the process began with the artist shaving all hair from his body, then pressing his skin against the name plates. To enhance the impression, he would lie quite still with weights bearing down upon him for thirty minutes at a stretch. As the process is quite painful, a certain resolve to persevere attends. The result?


15: Names contract into the surface of his body, surrounded by reddish, wounding bruises. These are quickly photographed for the skin rapidly retracts, but the bruises and aches last for many days. The images are then printed on translucent silk organza banners, the fragility of which counters the solidity of mainstream war memorials. What’s more, they’re given to the wind – an element that features in much of this artist’s work – thus they evoke the all too easy passing of those who die at war only to be forgotten.


16: Lost Men Mozambique encountered censorship before it was installed since the host government refused the artist access to its archives. Well after negotiations, after permits and contracts were signed, the government informed Emmanuel that all records of combatants who fell in its independence wars were officially closed. Though censored while they took place, South Africa’s record of these conflicts were later opened to public inquiry. With Mozambique no longer willing to comply, the artist choose to imprint upon his body South African names alongside the words “unknown soldier” in English, Shangaan, and Portuguese. The popular Ferry Jetty in Maputo was selected as the site for a few reasons: South Africa had bombed the city and attacked its own exiles here during the war;(14) and the jetty itself – a dock that bobs with the wind and tide and is situated between land and water – appealed for its liminal qualities.


17: Further state censorship occurred upon installation. Working with an art student hired locally and Project Manager Les Cohn, the team was confronted by a police officer who told them they could not lawfully take photographs of the Finance Ministry, seen here in the background.(15) Video film of the installation was confiscated. Very soon another objection was raised:


18: the banners themselves offended and they were advised to scrap the entire project. Up the line of military command, concern was raised that images of a naked man would offend the women of Mozambique. Soon a local Mozambican assistant to the project had his identity documents seized and a military General arrived on site. Emmanuel’s full team was threatened with arrest unless the banners came down. Ms. Cohn calmly negotiated a settlement by centering on what they found to be the most offensive banners. This is how she described it:


19: “So there stood the General, with this lower level guy trying to make a name for himself, and this young guy who was gesticulating about the offensiveness of all this to their mothers and sisters and daughters and what not… Assessing the situation it was very apparent that I was having to deal with a General who first of all would not look at me, who was very male, he was implementing his position, certainly was not going to deal with a foreign white woman, or be seen to be giving way on his position…. I smiled, and without a word being spoken between me and the General, with his back to me, he in Portuguese, I negotiated. I said that we understood that if we were to take the so-called offending banners down, he would, without saying so, kind of agree that the others could stay. But we neither looked at each other, nor actually interacted face-to-face…. And so the situation was contained.”


20: These were the two banners deemed most offensive to the General and fellow officers on site. As project manager, Ms. Cohn was mindful of the many sponsors and colleagues who helped to realize Lost Men Mozambique over the two preceding years. She also felt a large responsibility toward colleagues in Maputo who would remain after Emmanuel’s team left the country. Happily, officers within the city’s French Mozambican Cultural Centre readily accepted the banners


21: for inclusion in an exhibition of art by students who worked with Emmanuel during two printmaking workshops he conducted at the National School of Visual Art, also in Maputo. Thus these banners were shown concurrent with their partners at the Jetty, further uniting the sites and slyly resisting the censor’s eye.


22: By the time Emmanuel made Lost Men France in 2013, he had developed a new process that enabled him to press names into his skin along its curved surfaces.(16) First he created a mold by lying in plaster; then he pressed letters into it to create a rounded template.


23: The template was then set upon the floor and the artist climbed back into it, had weights placed upon him, and lay still for those long thirty minutes during which the names were pressed into his skin.


24: These resulted in a greatly enhanced impression of larger scale that matched the body’s many contours and the skin’s natural invaginations and varied folds.


25: With this installation, Emmanuel began to describe The Lost Men Project as a fingers “counter memorial” since it has grown, since Grahamstown, to be more than what he once described as fingers “a dialogue with monuments.” In every way, The Lost Men offers us the opposite of what war memorials do. Unlike the Thiepval Memorial visible through the cloth here, Lost Men France is light in weight and soon bore the trace of rain and wind that weathered its edges.


26: Whereas the names upon Thiepval are etched in granite, understood as a manly material that will endure, those upon Emmanuel’s skin will soon fade, and female qualities are evoked both through the cloth he used and poses he performed. Finally, although Thiepval names tens of thousands of soldiers who were born in Britain or its Commonwealth colonies and dominions, and later died in northern France during the Great War, Lost Men names many who were censored from public view: mostly black servicemen from former colonies of Europe, South Africa (once a British dominion), but he insisted that any fallen soldier of any color from anywhere, including Germany, could be named in Lost Men. The presumption is that South Africans named black servicemen in their own Great War memorial at Deville Wood nearby, in fact it did not. These men were not considered combatants since, unlike white South African soldiers, they were not issued guns. Rather they served as laborers who ferried supplies to the front lines.(17)


27: As with Mozambique, Lost Men France was first censored by a nation state and later censured by the public. Emmanuel hoped to install it on the Thiepval Memorial site but was denied permission by the country charged with its upkeep and governance: England. Happily, the French allowed him to install it on an adjacent road that falls under their jurisdiction. As the lone international art work accepted by a committee of historians, art historians, and military personnel to celebrate the war’s centenary, Emmanuel’s Lost Men France struck a personal cord like no other. Self described fingers “torch bearers” of war veterans hotly debated its merits in an online forum, with one calling for vandals set to work tearing it down, and another conjuring, for all involved, quote “a plague on all their houses.”(18) Pause. As with Mozambique, nudity was the core concern,


28: and this photograph (for they had not seen the banner) garnered more attention then the others in what one supportive forumite called a quote “frothing, outraged over-reaction to a temporary exhibition in a foreign country.”(19) The project was variously called vulgar, hideous, debased, a monstrosity, and much more besides. It was considered fingers “a blight on the landscape” and, paradoxically, condemned for “imposing” upon what was quote “an untouched part of the battlefield.”(20) Performance art historian Amelia Jones notes that the practice frequently draws what she calls “undeclared assumptions of the usually heterosexual, white European (derived) male…. Who, as a matter of course in leading his case, overlooks the… incongruities of his own position.”(21) A man named Norman who uses the tag name “seadog” called Emmanuel, his team, and the committee that selected Lost Men for inclusion in France’s Centenary quote “liberal elites” who allowed a “ridiculous piece of un-ex-pur-gated garbage” onto a space he deemed holy, indeed, untouched.(22) Others considered Emmanuel not “normal.”(23)


29: Some supported Emmanuel’s vision and dove into the fray. They called it innovative, interesting, even beguiling. French authorities were congratulated for quote “having the bravery to rattle cages and – gasp – make people think.”(24) One forum writer was eager fingers “to see it in the ‘flesh.’”(25) The most thoughtful among them wrote,


30: “I really, really like this installation, very poignant, very evocative and a beautiful imaginative expression of art and remembrance, I whole heartedly support the artist and those responsible. I see no disgrace nor insult and the location more than appropriate. On a grey soaked misty morning, in the warm shallow wind of a summers afternoon and at the going down of the sun, I look forward to standing amongst them.”(26)


31: The body under duress, for in war it surely is this, touches us all, and this empathetic response is what makes body based art work so very appropriate to questioning states that enact warfare but deny it in ways too numerous to count. Both Richards and Emmanuel have been struck by the many traumas of war, a reality that stretches back, through the thickness of time, to impart meaning on this uniform from about 1902. Their respective projects stand in for a physical presence to which we can each relate, and in the traces they leave we reflect on greater costs of soldiers known and not, but no longer censored from history.

1 Paul Emmanuel, interview with author, June 10, 2015.

2 Compulsory conscription began in 1957. Though there were some Conscientious Objectors, draft resistance did not gain currency until 1983 when the End Conscription Campaign was launched. See Out of Step: War Resistance in South Africa (1989) for more information.

3 Marga Holness, “Angola: The Struggle Continues,” 88-89. In Destructive Engagement: Southern Africa at War, 73-108. Phyllis Johnson and David Martin, eds. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House for the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, 1986.

4 Colin Richards, “Drawing a Veil: Art in the Age of Emergency,” 13. Paper presented at conference The TRC: Commissioning the Past, University of the Witwatersrand, June 11-14, 1999.

5 http://www.castleofgoodhope.co.za. Accessed June 30, 2015.

6 Interview with author by email, December 16, 2000.

7 Jennifer Law, “Performing on a fault line: The making(s) of a South African spy novel and other stories,” 179. In Para-Sites: A casebook against cynical reason, edited by George E. Marcus, 151-194. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

8 This, Richards said, was a career long interest that dates back to his MFA dissertation entitled Endgame, drawn from Samuel Beckett’s play of the same title. Richards 2000. Unless otherwise noted the following quotes are from the same source.

9 Phyllis Johnson and David Martin, “Angola,” 125. In Apartheid Terrorism: The Destabilization Report, 122-149. London: James Curry; and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

10 Colin Richards, interview with author, ______, 2006.

11 Ibid.

12 Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy, 4th edition. Malden, MA and London: Blackwell, 2007, pp. 134-139.

13 The following was gleaned from Emmanuel 2015.

14 Les Cohn, interview with author, June 19, 2015.

15 Ibid; also Emmanuel 2015.

16 Unless otherwise noted, the following is from Emmanuel 2015.

17 Paul Emmanuel, “A Quest for The Lost Men France,” paper given at Institut Francais and Tshwane University of Technology.

18 Kevin Donaldson, April 13, 2014; Norman (aka seadog), April 5, 2014; Bob G., April 12, 2014. Both participants in Great War Forum – Battles, battlefields and places – Battlefield touring.

19 Ibid. IanA., April 14, 2014.

20 Norman, op. cit., April 5, 2014; high wood, April 14, 2015; Norman (aka seadog), April 6, 2014.

21 Performing the body / Performing the text, 3. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. New York: Routledge, 1999.

22 Kevin Donaldson, April 13, 2014.

23 Sly, April 6, 2014.

24 Steven Broomfield, April 13, 2014.

25 Ian A., April 13, 2014.

26 Jon (aka jay dubaya), April 7, 2014.

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