30.05.19 – 27.07.19
Through the act of painting, Rory Emmett’s alchemic interest in paint serves as a way of decoding and encoding his understanding of identity. His interrogation of colour and the medium of painting allows him to explore the ideological connotations of skin, and how pigment is used as a racial construct. In this exhibition titled Reprise, Emmett continues to deliberate with his alter ego, The Cape Colourman. Performing I Feel Most Coloured When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp Black And White Background (2018), Emmett climbs into his alter ego as an act of performing painting.
In Reprise, Emmett picks up on his continued wrestling with the act of painting and the perceived distinctions between painting as a form of labour verses painting as an intellectual project. During Emmett’s performance, ‘Colourman’ repeatedly writes the phrase “I Feel Most Coloured When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp Black And White Background” with charcoal (black) and chalk (white) on a painted black and white background. Once the painted background has been saturated with text, ‘Colourman’ proceeds to breakdown stones painted in the primary colours of yellow, red and blue to a fine powder form. The powdered stones are mixed with water and then poured out of wine bottles to achieve a chromatic grey ‘paint’. The grey fluid formed from the coloured stones is then used as a pigmented medium to obliterate the written text, leaving only a painted grey wall.
The painting process becomes a showground for Emmett to grapple with the construction of knowledge, language and identity – particularly in the context of being coloured in Cape Town, South Africa. A colourman is defined as someone who deals in paints, and are the unsung assistants to the ‘old masters’ of Western painting tradition. The Cape Colourman looks at the various roles and identities coloured people have had to take on, and have been subjected to, throughout both South Africa’s historical and present-day.
Glenn Ligon’s work, titled untitled (I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background) (1990) serves as a reference point for Emmett’s performance. Ligon adopted the title of his artwork from Zora Neale Hurston’s essay How It Feels To Be Colored Me (1928). In this essay, Hurston discusses her relationship with her blackness – and how her blackness is only made obvious when placed in an environment where she is the only black person, surrounded by a sea of whiteness. Much like Hurston and Ligon, through the process of writing, Emmett abstracts ideological constructions of race whilst using the act of transcribing to allow repetition to flow into abstraction, through the scribbles of chalk and charcoal layers obscuring the meaning of the text.
I Feel Most Coloured When I Am Thrown Against A Sharp Black And White Background was initially adapted as a site-specific performance for the exhibition, The Main Complaint, at Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa. This performance marked the first time The Cape Colourman appeared dressed in a suit jacket, whilst still wearing the boots and pants from a painter’s overall belonging to Emmett’s father. As the title Reprise suggests, the repetition of a mark, a dab of paint, a drip or spill, alludes to exercises in futility – of learning and unlearning. Emmett comments on his own position within this process by physically applying dabs of colour onto his own skin. In this way, we cannot tell which racial category the artist falls into, and are confronted with the figure’s constructed ‘skin’ that is constantly shifting – highlighting both the complexities of the surface and a re-imagining of identity; transcending the superficial.
Text by Stephané Conradie