Conceptual artist Emma Willemse deals in her work with powerful, universal themes revolving around trauma and place: home and the loss of home, place-making and sense of place, displacement, memory, identity.
Her interest in displacement as a theme is informed by her own experience of the loss of several homes in the 1990s. As a result, her engagement with the concept of displacement has a dual character: while deeply rooted in the artist’s personal history, it also resonates with topicality and relevance in a world where more people than ever before have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict and human rights violations.
The focus of her engagement with the concept is on the psychological rather than the political or social dimensions of displacement. Her work can be read as an ongoing quest for an understanding of how the psyche of the displaced is affected by the loss of a home, and to make visible the notion of losses of memory and identity consequent upon the traumatic experience of the loss of a home.
A recurring theme in her artmaking is the idea of the psycho-archaeological: the exploration of the possibility for the past traumatic experience of displacement to be psychologically transcended through excavation of memory. She often works with found objects in the form of tangible fragments showing a weathered brokenness that suggests wounding and scarring, with trace-like qualities of erasure and elusiveness, collected from sites infused with a history of loss. In her work these fragments imply the imperfect memory processes linked with trauma prevalent during displacement, talking to the recollection of events, and the awareness of a link between past and future.
Technically varied, including sculptural installations, printmaking, artist’s books, painting and drawing, her artworks frequently return to the motif of the boat and the meanings it generates in the context of displacement, as she continues to explore and investigate how the boat, as a means of displacement, can be a metaphor for the traumatic experience of loss.
Her works have been exhibited in Florence, Dakar, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Paris and London, and have been included in the Nando’s collection, the Arcadia collection, and the South African embassy in Beijing. In 2015 she was awarded second prize in the installations category at the Florence Biennale. Emma holds a Masters degree in Visual Arts from the University of South Africa and qualifications in psychology and librarianship, and lives in the village of Riebeek-Kasteel in South Africa’s Western Cape province.