This post summarizes and analyzes Paul Emmanuel’s The Lost Men of France—a WWI counter-memorial that has been on my mind recently—for a course that I’m taking with Prof. Suzanne Blier on the contemporary arts of Africa.

2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of what was at the time called the Great War. With the blessing of the French Government, Johannesburg based artist Paul Emmanuel has commemorated the centennial by installing a series of silk tapestries in a field that flanks the permanent stone and brick Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Printed on the delicate silk banners are images of Emmanuel’s nude body pressed with deep imprints of the names of both black and white South African soldiers who died at Somme yet whom were excluded from Thiepval Memorial. Like other “anti-monuments,” through its ephemerality and humanness, Lost Men counters the monolithic ideology and history inscribed in triumphant, monumental monuments (like Thiepval) meant to tower above the earth and withstand the elements, symbolic of their creator’s power and endurance. Already, the summer’s storms, heat, and dust have battered Emmanuel’s installation, fraying the ethereal cloth and rusting the metal poles, conjuring the violence subjected on the bodies of the young, fit men of the Western Front. These allusions to youthful slaughter are not evident in the polished Thiepval arches, and viewing its arches in the same plane as Emmanuel’s momentary evocation of the tearing and rotting of flesh suggests why memories of World War nightmares fade with time like Emmanuel’s silk banners. Through the tranquility of Lost Men’s soft images and subtle material, the suggestion of war’s horrors becomes all the more chilling, leaving the adjacent 1932 Thiepval Memorial looking garish and insensitive while the translucence of Emmanuel’s tapestries imparts trust that historical omission and obfuscation is not their intent. With no WWI combatants still living, Lost Men suggests a way memories of humankind’s first exposure to the terror of mechanized warfare may yet be preserved and passed on–not in triumphant European architecture–but in architecture molded from more recent (South African) discourses of truth and reconciliation. In this way, Emmanuel’s memorial also speaks to the fact that African Art–that is art produced by “Africans” or those who feel a connection to the continent–is not spatially or topically limited; rather African Art’s numerous and diverse discursive strands continue to have a global impact.

Link to The Lost Men of France website

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