Artist Emma Prempeh joined us for a live conversation hosted by Ama van Dantzig. Emma lives in London, working mainly with painting and video. She studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths University of London, graduating in 2019 and winning the Alumno/SPACE Studio Bursary award in 2020. She started her MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in September 2020. Her work Ardour is presented in ONWARD&UPWARD, in which she combines painting and video projection.
Ama van Dantzig is researcher and creative thinker, based in Ghana and the Netherlands. She co-founded Dr Monk, a platform designing creative interventions for a more green and compassionate future.
Ama: Can you tell us about Ardour? What are you exploring?
Emma: This work was the result of an ending of a relationship. It was a coping mechanism. I really wanted to focus on the passing of time. I didn’t know how to do it, because I am a predominantly painter. Then kind of accidently I projected on it. I thought, when I can get the right amount of light and dark, I can tell a story. I’m kind of obsessed with windows as well so adding the projections makes it seem like many different scenes in one setting. It explores my idea of time crossing and of being alone.
A: When I visited the exhibition, I felt invited in this collective dream. It found it quite a surreal experience. I was really drawn to your work. I started to remember how I felt when my father passed away when I was 17. I remember being really angry how time kept passing on, when this huge thing had stopped or changed in my life. I kept seeing so many layers. I also spent a lot of time looking through a window and seeing this bus arrive and leave, and people getting on and off and wondered why nobody was stopping? I felt this was very unfair. That’s what I saw. But for you, Ardour is not about death.
E: It can be. My work does look at those intangible things that we can’t quite grasp. We can’t stop a feeling that we feel when someone passes or when you lose something. I know that losing someone that I loved not physically is completely different than somebody actually dying. But I see that that plays in to it. It’s very interesting that that aspect caught you, that it is up to interpretation in this way.
A: What is that like for you? To offer something that you are exploring, something very personal, to become its own and to gain its own meaning once it’s out there?
E: I think that’s a great thing. You can never know what someone is going to comprehend. I find it great that people are able to take aspects of it and bring it into the way they feel. The reason why it’s called Ardour, is because I wanted it to do that. I didn’t want it to be just about me, but about a feeling that everyone has or will essentially experience. To be able to come back to it and recognize the feeling, that’s my goal and I keep doing it continuously. I think this is a pivotal piece for me to continue to explore because it’s something I really enjoy doing.
I paint through an emotion. That’s why I call this piece Forgetting. I sometimes even visit it again and think: Oh my god, I remember how I felt at that time. It’s nice because now I can release it. There is beauty in that it helps me get through the moments when I struggle. That’s why I really enjoy making, because I can get out of my feelings.
The reason I use imitation gold leaf is I don’t want it to last, I don’t want its brightness to continue, so it reflects time physically. I really want to see my work in twenty years’ time, because the gold leaf goes into this really rusty, grey orange, blue colour, almost becoming transparent. I say to people who want to buy my work that it’s going to change and will not look the same. And that’s the whole point of my work, I want time to be worn at ages, like we do.
Forgetting, 2020. Picture: VO Curations
A: What’s your deal with the concept of time?
E: My struggle with time is due to my health issues and my fascination with spirituality. I was born with a heart condition, and being in and out of hospitals I always thought about dying and living, about time passing. I just have an obsession with it. Sometimes I tell a story in little ways, by adding bits, just like time itself. Memories are very fragmented, they aren’t framed. You remember things you want to, and let go of everything else.
A: Do you have a clear question for yourself that you’re trying to explore in it?
E: I think it’s existential thoughts. Everybody probably asks the question why am I here? It just allows me to be able to explore that through art. It will probably never give me a definite answer, but the journey is fun for me.
A: And is it spiritual for you?
E: Definitely. In small ways. Even if that means getting things out. Looking at this piece makes me feel so emotional and the fact that you can bring back that emotion is spiritual in itself.
A: What is the emotion that is triggered when you look at your own work?
E: This pieces specifically reminds me of everything that I went through with that person, what I went through after they left and what I was doing at that time. I’m in a complete different position than I was then. Even the plant, I still have it and its thriving.
A: It’s interesting that you call it Forgetting, but it’s about remembering.
E: I only remember it when I look at it. Forgetting is the fact that I painted it, and I’ve let it go, I’m no longer in possession of it. It is like an object that I can throw away. Of course memories take a long time to get rid of, but physically I could do something about it.
A: So Forgetting and Ardour are both about loss.
E: Yes. Loss and loneliness.
A: How has the creative process been for you in 2020?
E: At one point it slowed down completely, and then I was just thrown into it. I just decided to deal with what I was experiencing. It was good to do but I can look back at it and think, how did I deal with this stuff? I am very happy that I was able to.
Windows of Emotion is about 2020 and being in my room, looking out the window. Diary entries are printed onto fabric from my bedsheet. It’s about being in solitude. Being alone is very different from being lonely. People can be alone without feeling lonely. At this point I just felt alone, but I kind of liked that. I felt comfortable, being by myself.
The video I’m Obsessed with Windows depicts a window with the view from my room, and the tree in front. I documented it for the whole year at different stages. I reflects the different seasons that we go through. It is a view of time as well. It’s me being in the same room, but the outside is changing, the tree is changing, the seasons are changing. I’m experimenting with that.
A: Everything came to a standstill. What did you learn about what keeps you going?
E: I look at time in a weird way. Nothing can stop you from what you want to do. It’s just your mental state. I only believe that because I have had so many different scares because of my heart situation. I find it easier to get through a rough patch. I feel like I just have to work. Even when it’s hard, when I have a really tight deadline, I’m really happy when I’ve done it. Even when I have to do it in my room. There is no end to when you have that creative mindset of just doing it for fun. If you’re doing it for someone or to gain something, then it might be a bit different. If you’re doing it to release something or to get out of your creative expression, it becomes easier.
A: Are there things about time that you’ve discovered that you want to hold on to, or let go of?
E: With Ardour, I wanted people to stand at it and see it’s a painting that’s usually still. As soon as the projection moves, it can be many different paintings at once. That’s what I think time is. It’s many different moments. Even if you think about time being very far away or time being very close. A day from now is very close, but a year from now is very far, but essentially it’s the same.
A: I think it’s fascinating to be exploring what we think is loss in time.
E: It can be very hard, losing someone and then time is still moving. Like you said you wanted to make time stop, but it doesn’t. Coming to terms with the fact that things pass away and things become memories. Sometimes I feel I like looking at this because it makes me cope with it. Death is scary to me, and I think because I’ve had problems, it became even scarier while at the same time, I just need to deal with this. Let me paint something that makes me deal with this.
A: Is it still scary to you?
E: The more I grow up, the less it is. It’s more the concept of having someone there, and then not there. For example, people keep rooms of people that have passed away exactly as they did when they were here. I find that balance between disappearing and being here really scary.
A: Isn’t it also a little bit comforting?
E: I don’t know. In a way, it’s like you can live in the past in terms of the objects that you have. We are born to die, and death is a matter of fact, you can’t escape that. It is more scary to me how I die, when would it happen, how would it feel like. All of these different questions.
A: My last question to you is: If there was one person you could meet, who would you want to meet and what would you want to ask them?
E: I would like to ask someone older, that has a lot of experience. I would pick Betye Saar, a really great Black female artist. What I would ask is: When was the point when you were ever satisfied? Is that achievable?
A: I was actually going to ask you that, when are you satisfied?
E: I haven’t actually been satisfied with any of the pieces that I’ve done. I like elements of it. People have said that the point of satisfaction is when you really stop doing what you’re doing. Which is a good thing. I don’t think I’ll ever get there. Especially when I’m looking at time, because time is forever moving.