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Emma Willemse: turn trauma into exceptional art

Her art is very clean, peculiar, and unique, something that can’t be copied, maybe even thought of. It has been recognised both locally and internationally. Temo Mpodi spoke to Emma Willemse about the inspiration behind the art and her goals.

1. You are an exceptional artist, art curator and educator. How did this come about?

My earliest memories are of me drawing and figuring out how to manifest the world around me in a visual way. I always wanted to become an artist, not only by depicting the world out there, but most of all to make a meaningful visual contribution through the interplay of the visual language and ideas. This quest came to be realised through a life-changing event.

After my first degree in Visual Art, I went through a spell where life happened, and I lost several homes consecutively. Throughout these traumatic experiences, my focus was on survival, physically and psychologically.

Elegy for a deceased tree 2023, Monotype on Fabriano 71x71cm.

2. WOW! Where do you draw inspiration, and what message do you relay through your art?

Since I did my research in the early 2010’s, displacement has only become more and more relevant. It is known that the number of displaced people in the world has grown to be the greatest in human memory. Through my investigations, I have also come to the conclusion that this experience impacts all areas of our lives, so I have now widened my focus to what I believe is the zeitgeist of our times, namely the experience of loss.

I have recently also started to include ideas of restoration in my work, asking questions such as how we could commemorate through our engagements with place, how we experience a sense of place and the meanings that place generates for us.

3. I love the compassion and empathy behind it all. So, which art exhibitions do you consider the highlights of your art career?

Definitely my solo show at the 1:54 Contemporary Art Fair in London in October 2018. After having seen my work earlier in the year, the organisers of the show asked me to present a show in their Special Editions section, with my suspended boat installation called Suture as the centrepiece. I often use the boat as a metaphor for the experience of displacement, and all the boats that I have created are either broken, decayed or overladen, unable to perform their function. Suture was exhibited in Somerset House, which is situated next to the Thames River in London, and the show included some of my collograph prints as well as my artist’s books.

Suture 2018 Suspended boat installation and collagraphs at the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, London

4. Do you find yourself at times inspired by your own work?

Definitely. Sometimes, after I have created the work and I stand back, I become aware of unintended synergies that increase the meaning of a work. An example is the aerial views of the Stone Circle Project, which, for me relates to ancient archaeological sites.

*Emma Willemse has just completed a website for her long-term ongoing project, the artist’s book installation called 101 ways to long for a home, a collection of a hundred and one handmade artist’s books and sculptural objects within the theme of displacement, a concept that she has been investigating for the last 15 years. www.101waystolongforahome.co.za

The Stone Circle Project aerial view in Riebeek Kasteel 202

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