At Smithsonian’s African art museum: Rites of passage, drawn precisely

“Paul Emmanuel: Transitions” is about invisible lines, in more ways than one.The first sense is literal. To make the five “drawings” that form the core of the show at the National Museum of African Art, the South African artist used a razor-sharp blade to incise tiny lines in the black surface of exposed photographic paper. The result is a series of engraving-like images that, on casual inspection, are indistinguishable from photographs. Look more closely, however, and you’ll see evidence of the cut marks, but they’re so fine that the surfaces looks slightly soft and fuzzy, like felted fabric.

South African artist Paul Emmanuel uses exposedphotographic paper and a blade to create engraving-like imagesdepicting such events as the shaving of a military recruit’s head.(Images From Spier Contemporary Collection) adsonar_placementId=1483519;adsonar_pid=1900773;adsonar_ps=-1;adsonar_zw=228;adsonar_zh=215;adsonar_jv=”ads.adsonar.com”;Friday, May 21, 2010 The technique alone is remarkable. But there’s another kind of linein this show. As the title suggests, it’s the kind that we cross,without knowing it, only to realize — sometimes years after the fact– that we’re no longer the people we once were.In this case, the drawings document what Emmanuel terms “masculinerites of passage”: circumcision, military head shaving, marriage, afather’s birthday and, in the show’s most literal interpretation of itstitle, commuters passing through subway turnstiles. Each drawingconsists of a sequence of five images, arranged like pages of a book,to be read left to right. They’re based on photographs the artist took.What Emmanuel has done, in effect, is to hit the pause button onlife and then to study it, like a forensic scientist, one frame at atime. “I wanted,” he says in an interview, “to obsess over a moment.”Each moment concerns at most only a matter of minutes. Sometimesmere seconds. In one, a middle-aged man is helped up from his seat athis father’s 90th birthday party. In another, a military barber buzzesbald the scalp of a new recruit. In a third, a baby boy is, er,snipped. Each of the drawings — the artist considers a group of five asingle drawing — took six months to complete.By freezing actions that are fleeting and painstakingly teasing themapart, Emmanuel invites us to share his obsessiveness, looking forsomething that isn’t really there. Not what’s happening, in otherwords, but what it means.What we find is sometimes unexpected. In the circumcision pictures,for instance, there’s a surprising tenderness. Rather than the violentdrama, blood and tears that Emmanuel says he expected — and that wemight, too — there’s an eerie quiescence, as the baby sleeps throughthe whole thing. Questions about the controversial procedure linger inthe air. However, the art is scrupulously neutral.The head-shaving pictures are similarly ambiguous, suggesting bothviolence and tenderness. This is even more apparent in a 14-minute filmthat accompanies the show, in which barbers from the Third SouthAfrican Infantry are shown, in slow motion, buzz-cutting one youngsoldier’s head after another. Reduced to its most elemental gestures –a hand brushing hair clippings from the skin, for instance — thisinitiation into a life of danger takes on new meaning and can be seenas an intimate, almost sensual act.In the end, Emmanuel’s “Transitions” isn’t just about men. We alllive too fast, he seems to be saying, men and women, young and old.What would we see if we could slow down the milestones that whiz pastus on the highway of life and hold onto them for just a minute longer?PAUL EMMANUEL: TRANSITIONS Through Aug. 22 at the , 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). . Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free.
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