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Elsa James is a British African-Caribbean conceptual artist and activist who grew up in London and now lives and works in Essex. In 2024, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Essex in recognition of her work exploring the Essex identity and advocating for the overlooked and misunderstood aspects of the county's past and present. In 2023, she was a nominated recipient of the Henry Moore Foundation Artist Award and, in 2021, a finalist for the prestigious Freelands Award with Focal Point Gallery. Her work is held in private and public collections, including the UK Government Art Collection and Beecroft Art Gallery, where she became the first Black British artist to be acquired for the gallery's collection. In 2022, she was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in Essex.

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As a first-generation Black British woman, James' practice is driven by a profound yearning to dig deep into and engage with her Caribbean and previously African heritage. This is underpinned by an activist impulse that employs 'dramatic, understated confrontation as a means of uncovering the consequences of historical prejudice and exclusion, and the uncomfortable echoes of those past attitudes in our own time',  Dr Jon Blackwood (2021). She works across live performance, film, printmaking, spoken word, neon and sound to create artworks invested in an ongoing questioning of visibility and belonging that centres Blackness as a methodology for liberation.

Recent solo exhibitions and presentations include Gestures Towards Telling A New Narrative, National Maritime Museum, London (2024); Living in the Wake of the Lust for Sugar, Museum of London Docklands, London (2023); Free To Flourish, Tate Britain, London (2023); Ode to David Lammy MP, Bernie Grant Arts Centre, London (2023); Othered in a region that has been historically Othered, Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea (2022); Black Girl Essex, Firstsite, Colchester (2019) and Forgotten Black Essex, Metal, Southend-on-Sea (2018).

 

Her work is included in group exhibitions, transfeminisms Chapter III: Fragile Archives, Mimosa House, London (2024); Intension, (the concept ‘dog’ encapsulates its ‘dogness’), Copperfield, London (2024); Liberation in Four Movements, Art Museum at the University of Toronto, Canada (2024); Acts of Creation; On Art and Motherhood, Hayward Gallery Touring in partnership with Arnolfini, Bristol; Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham; Millennium Gallery, Sheffield and Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee (2024--25); Rites of Passage, Gagosian, London (2023); Re-Naissance, Unit London, London (2023); Precarious, Art Exchange, Colchester (2023); Love, Celebration and the Road Ahead, TJ Boulting, London (2022) and Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Firstsite, Colchester and South London Gallery, London (2021--22). 

James studied as a mature student; she completed a BA Fine Art Degree at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London (2006--10), graduating with first-class honours, and holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Participatory and Community Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London (2013--15). She was an original member of the feminist activist collective the Essex Girls Liberation Front (2017--23).

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