With the premiere of her first major solo exhibition in Southend this month, artist Elsa James talks to Focal Point Gallery director Katharine Stout about challenging perceptions of our county

Essex is an enigmatic place. Media perceptions of the county have often relied on stereotypes and suggestions that it is lacking culture or class, but one Southend-based artist is setting out to change that perception radically.

Elsa James, producer, activist and one of the most interesting and relevant emerging artists working in Essex today opened her first major solo exhibition at Focal Point Gallery in the centre of Southend on 25 June 2022. The premiere of her most ambitious work to date, Othered in a region that has been historically Othered, celebrates James’ unique artistic practice and her continuing investigation into what it means to be black in Essex, challenging assumptions and uncovering hidden histories.

Great British Life: Tilbury Docks in Elsa's film Black Girl Essex: Here We Come, Look We HereTilbury Docks in Elsa's film Black Girl Essex: Here We Come, Look We Here (Image: Andy Delaney)

James has lived in Essex since 1999, moving from her childhood home in West London to Chafford Hundred in Thurrock with her first daughter and husband. The move connected her to arts organisations like Metal in Chalkwell Park and Focal Point Gallery in Southend city centre. Whilst at an International Women’s Day event organised by Metal in 2017, a discussion with Leigh-on-Sea novelist Syd Moore sparked an interest in exploring and debunking the ‘Essex Girl’ stereotype. ‘It became apparent, during a panel discussion, that women from Zimbabwe, Congo and South Africa all knew about this stereotype,’ remembers Elsa. ‘Syd declared, “I’m going to start the Essex Girl Liberation Front” (EGLF), and of course I joined immediately.’

Thus began the on-going campaign to challenge the perception of the county's much-maligned female stereotype. Elsa continues, ‘I’d already made two short films under the title Forgotten Black Essex, which honoured two black women who had passed through the county: Princess Dinubolu from Senegal who had entered a beauty pageant in Southend in 1908, and an enslaved woman named Hester Woodley, who was brought to Harlow from the Caribbean in the 1700s.

Great British Life: Elsa as Hester Woodley in Forgotten Black Essex, filmed in St Mary's Church, Harlow.Elsa as Hester Woodley in Forgotten Black Essex, filmed in St Mary's Church, Harlow. (Image: Amaal Said)

‘I had been ashamed to tell black folks in London that I lived in Essex, but as part of the EGLF I was proudly wearing a T-shirt with ‘This is what an Essex Girl looks like’ emblazoned upon it. I realised that I needed to unpack all this some more through my artistic practice, so I coined the term ‘Black Girl Essex’ to feel comfortable in doing that.’

Elsa James has already had a successful first career during the late ’80s and early ’90s as a top-level international fashion model. Once settled with her young family in Essex in the early 2000s, she returned to education, achieving a BA Fine Art degree from Chelsea College of Art, 20 years after she first harboured ambitions to attend the college. In a short space of time, she has received significant acclaim and recognition in the UK art world. Through previous projects such as Forgotten Black Essex (2018), Black Girl Essex (2019) and on-going activism with the Essex Girls Liberation Front, Elsa has successfully challenged the stereotype of the Essex Girl whilst dismantling the Essex identity promoted in mainstream media.

Great British Life: Film still of Elsa, filmed by Andy DelaneyFilm still of Elsa, filmed by Andy Delaney (Image: Andy Delaney)

2018 saw Forgotten Black Essex shown on the Big Screen Southend. The film Black Girl Essex and co-creation of the exhibition, Super Black for Firstsite gallery in Colchester came later in 2019. In 2021, Elsa was selected as one of four co-curators for the live digital opening weekend of Estuary 2021, the large-scale arts festival that celebrates the lives, landscapes and histories of the Thames Estuary. She was selected as a Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2021 artist and was one of only five UK artists shortlisted for the prestigious 2021 Freelands Award.

Elsa’s artform is diverse and interdisciplinary, firmly rooted in research and presents new understandings of ‘blackness’ viewed through a contemporary Essex lens. By exploring little-known histories and current accounts of residents in England’s most misunderstood county, she illuminates her own experience, the contemporary experience of others and the experience of past generations of black Essex, drawing them together to show the connections through time.

Elsa's research for Othered in a region that has been historically Othered has produced an ambitious new three-part film, which spans vast timelines, finally propelling viewers to a radical future vision of Essex. Filmed in Dedham Vale, Mistley and Thurrock, this new film moves from a reimagining of the persecution of women as witches in the mid-17th century, led by infamous Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, to an alternative Essex, via a Caribbean island ritual that acts as a moment of change.

James is working with specialist collaborators, including renowned sound composer and editor Trevor Mathison (Black Audio Film Collective), music composer Paul Gladstone-Reid MBE, movement director and choreographer Lea Orož, carnival costume specialist Symone Williams and professional drummers Ken Lawrence and Niles Hailstones. Her regular collaborator, award-winning film director Andy Delaney, is also Southend-based and comes from a music video background, making videos with the likes of the Spice Girls, Lauryn Hill and George Michael.

Great British Life: The Big Screen event at Focal Point GalleryThe Big Screen event at Focal Point Gallery (Image: Anna Lukala)

A new sound work made in collaboration with Mathison will accompany visitors as they pass from one gallery to the next: a powerful soundtrack of crashing waves and sound that evokes the forced displacement of black people and the loss of identity under the transatlantic slave trade.

Tilbury was the landing point in 1948 for HMT Empire Windrush, a symbolic moment for multicultural Britain with the arrival of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants. Elsa explored this in her film Black Girl Essex: Here We Come, Look We Here (2019). A new large-scale neon work quoting the words of David Lammy MP from 2018, when speaking about the Windrush Scandal, will accompany the film and sound piece, alongside new screen prints from Elsa's ongoing project, The Blackness Series.

The activist in Elsa underpins her work, bringing to the fore the untold histories of Essex and encouraging audiences to reconsider perceptions and widespread misunderstandings about our county.

Othered in a region that has been historically Othered

Sun 26 Jun to Sun 18 Sep 2022

Focal Point Gallery, Southend, SS1 1NB