Rory Emmett is a young and talented artist who decided to follow his creative vocation and to study Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town, where he was born and where he is living now. Attending the courses, he started to realise he wanted to become a practising artist and, in doing so, to give something important to the community he lives in. And he is succeeding in this purpose, “using” arts to educate and inspire critical thinking to young boys and girls. In the same time, the city of Cape Town gives him back a lot of things, inspiring and guiding him in turn. In the interview below, we talk with him about these topics, but also about acknowledgements he gained and about the concepts behind his most inspiring works, like The Colourman Chronicles.
You were born and live in Cape Town. Tell us something about that city and growing in it.
Cape Town is so rich and intricate. This city becomes an amalgamation of various cultures and spaces all in one vibrant melting pot. It can be hectic, and it can also be very laid back and chilled. As I grow older, gain more experience and encounter more people and places- inside and outside the city- I learn more and more about this place I’ve called ‘home’ all my life. The appeal and energy of the big city hustle and bustle contrast the more natural landscapes like the many beaches, nature reserves, and of course- the famous Table Mountain. Another strong contrast is the dire socio-political and economic disconnect between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Within an hour drive around Cape Town, you will see extreme wealth as well as extreme poverty. What many tourists don’t see when they visit Cape Town is the symptomatic violence, inequality, oppression, substance abuse and rife gangsterism (to name a few) that takes place as a result of deep-seated politics of space and inherent social conditioning. Much of this is what colonial and apartheid legacies have left in their wake... But like I say, it depends on where you find yourself in Cape Town and whether you perceive the space beyond its surface. But I love it here, there’s so much beauty, talent and vision.
When did you feel the vocation for art disciplines?
I’ve always considered myself a creative person, but as a child, I didn’t dream of becoming an artist one day. Growing up I had no real examples of successful artists around me. Thankfully. I’ve been blessed with parents who always supported me in my creative pursuits, as they noticed and acknowledged my artistic gifting and helped nurture it early on. I was never very academic and after school, I had no idea what to pursue further. When I told my folks I wanted to study fine art, they encouraged me in it - which I’m really grateful for. I must admit that I still just went through the motions, and it was only during my third year at art school that I really woke up and realised the possibilities of becoming a practising artist. I started making more personal work.
We read you were active in facilitating art workshops in underprivileged communities. How much is art important to help people to overcome hard situations?
Yes, I’ve always believed in serving the community in whichever way you can. Using whatever you’ve been given to impact others and offer up your services to others, to uplift and inspire. Art just so happens to be what’s been placed in my hands to work with. I’ve always had a strong vocation to want to use my skills to not only function within art institutions, but to also pull others less fortunate than myself up through creative interaction and exchange. I’m constantly trying to work with like-minded people to look at new ways of doing so, whether it be facilitating workshops, painting murals in various spaces, doing walkabouts and talks with school groups etc, the need is there and it’s huge. I’m currently teaching visual arts at high school level, it’s extremely engaging and challenging. In many underprivileged communities, art isn’t considered to be a viable career choice and is considered to be a luxury reserved for the elite of society, which is nonsense. I believe education and teaching critical thinking is important to help young people unpack various discourses in our surrounding world, as well as to uncover their own artistic voice to perceive a bigger picture and engage in much broader discussion.
Have you ever imagined to receive all the acknowledgements you are receiving with your art? How do you feel about it?
It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling. I just try to stay focused and keep doing good work. It’s an honour for me to be able to provide for my family and to serve people through what I do. I acknowledge every little victory and accolade and enjoy it for what it is. I don’t get caught up in the hype- it doesn’t last. I have an amazing support structure and a tight-knit group of people who really have my back. I say this in the most humble way possible, but I believe that the only way is up for me and I want to give back- even with the little bit of success I’ve had in my career thus far. It’s a privilege to be able to build others up and not just build up my CV. So to answer the first part of the question, yes- I’ve always known I’d be successful one day and become an agent of change in my community.
How would you explain the concept behind your work called “The Colourman Chronicles”? Why people are so colourful while the rest has more grey tonalities?
The Colourman Chronicles is an ongoing project and is still developing the more I practice. I make paintings mostly, but I also do performance, installation, video and photography to document certain aspects of the work. My work takes on the idiom of Coloured identity, a term nationally used in South Africa to refer to native South Africans of diverse racial origin. I came across the term ‘colourman’ in a book I was reading during my final year at varsity, and it just jumped off the page at me. At the time I was trying to articulate my concerns through a visual manuscript, a kind of narrative that was layered and accessible. The term ‘colourman’ becomes a visual and textual pun, a play on the term ‘coloured man’. I’ve been developing the Cape Colourman character who functions as my avatar and is made up of various tones, shades and hues. This motif of perpetual greyness in my work, symbolises the in-betweenness of always being caught in a liminal state, and of perceiving ‘colouredness’ as having no real culture, or language, only stereotypes which we as a people are expected to assimilate. So many so- called ‘Cape Coloureds’ often sit with a complex of inherent self-loathing, feeling neither black nor white, not belonging to any specific or ‘pure ‘ racial group. I see this space as radiant and beautiful because there is so much potential in greyness to create your own way in the world- no space is neutral. So my work is very much about this process of imagination, negotiation and reclamation. I’m still coming to terms with the notion of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, the name ascribed to a post-democratic South Africa. What does it mean for me as a young man ‘of colour’, and other young people from my generation. I want to question and transcend these various constructs.
How much do your city and your country inspire you in your creations? Do you also want to communicate something about them with your works?
Not just the city but all of what this country was, is, and is becoming, informs my work in many ways and on many different levels. I can’t deny it. I don’t think I can begin to speak to global issues when I haven’t yet even fully engaged with my own place, in this part of the world. There’s so much inspiration here just waiting to be drawn from and eventually exposed to the rest of the world. But how do we see ourselves, first? Where do we come from? And how do we move forward and progress? Are we documenting our own stories on our own terms, as opposed to someone else telling us how they see us? I draw a lot of inspiration from the people who live here and the spaces themselves. Sometimes it filters directly into the work, sometimes it doesn’t.
Is it hard to gain ground in the African art scene? Is your city fervent from this point of view?
Yes, it’s a challenge to navigate any industry at first and learn the inner workings of it. But there are lots of spaces and institutions in the art world. Infiltrating them and getting to know how to work within in them comes with time and experience I suppose. I’m learning and growing as I practice. It’s a very competitive scene. But I believe that good work will always get the recognition it deserves.
We strongly believe it too, and it’s for this reason we think that Rory will go far. You can follow him and see his works The Colourman Chronicles on his website.
Photo credits: Gareth Gilmour