'Policy No.1 Disrupt The Existing Narratives', installation view, Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend-on-Sea. Image Anna Lukala 2020
POLICY NO. 1 DISRUPT THE EXISTING NARRATIVES
Site-specific vinyl wall text installation and appliqué flag responding to The Agency of Visible Womxn call out - If Southend-on-Sea had a policy for the arts, what would you want it to include?
The exhibition encourages the viewer to question who compiles the documents that govern our bodies and our lives, and whose voices might not be heard in their production or fulfilment. Policy Making enlivens this discussion and questions the dominant narratives, seeking to disrupt and decentre them. This is made apparent as soon as one enters the exhibition space with the first part of the first policy/artwork, Policy No. 1 Disrupt the Existing Narratives, by artist Elsa James. One is confronted by a flag hanging from the ceiling, draped down across the threshold in the middle of the exhibition’s entrance. It is the Essex flag but rather than the familiar red field and white seaxes James’ appliqué flag is black seaxes of leather, satin and metallic materials on a black field. To enter the exhibition one must walk around the flag, this subtle shifting of where one can enter the exhibition, and the questions this raises is amplified further through the second half of James’ Policy No. 1.
Behind and to the left of the flag James’ work continues, a black vinyl satin text on a black wall reading ‘POLICY NO. 1 DISRUPT THE EXISTING NARRATIVES’. The text is difficult to read from certain angles, particularly front and centre; the whole becomes legible as one makes their way from the centre to the edges, the viewer must physically move to read it in its entirety. James’ work decentres the viewer and in doing so, urges the viewer to ask whose stories get told in the existing narratives as they might be known and whose are omitted. It does this by encouraging the viewer to do the work, disrupting how one usually encounters artwork on walls in gallery spaces, particularly within the context of the Beecroft Gallery where the whole exhibition set up is based around ‘I’ shaped wall structures that are intended primarily for paintings viewed head-on; Policy No. 1 really makes the most of this somewhat restrictive interior architectural detail whilst simultaneously highlighting its limitations.
James’ work questions visibility in our society and its stereotypes, since the well-known 'Essex Girl' stereotype is invariably a white one; this is put in sharp relief with the appliqué flag, a call to include black voices in the county’s narratives. The curatorial decision to install Policy No.1 Disrupt the Existing Narratives as the first encounter really sets the tone for the exhibition, framing Policy Making as a critical questioning of who is visible and invisible in our society, and who gets to take up space and why - Warren Harper, Curator and Researcher
The concept for this vinyl wall text installation originates from my four-month residency Black Girl Essex at Firstsite gallery over the summer of 2019. By naming the residency Black Girl Essex, I wanted to play with the stereotype of the ‘Essex Girl’, which as we know characterises women from Essex as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic. However, as this is a historically white stereotype, the idea of prefixing Essex with 'black' seemed like a radical declaration that I felt compelled to unpack and explore; particularly as I had been living in the county for two decades. Moreover, I felt it was also necessary to consider this proposition with other black folks in Essex, which the residency allowed me to do.
From conversations with an intergenerational group of black folks, which culminated with a new film, Black Girl Essex: Here We Come, Look We Here (2019) and a new appliqué flag, The Black Essex Flag (2019)—included as part of this exhibition policy—came the realisation that not only was this an act of 'taking up space' for black voices in Essex to be heard; but also, these black voices had never been part of the Essex narrative from both inside or outside of the county.
The format for the wall text, black font on black, derives from a theme used in the ongoing numbered text project The Blackness Series started in 2016 that documents personal lived experience alongside a broader critical social commentary. The black font on black is intentionally arduous to read, serving as a reminder about who is visible and who is invisible, becoming fully legible when light reflects and interacts with the screen or work.
The flag design is a copy of the Flag of Essex (the earliest references of the flag being used to represent the county dates back to the 17th century); it features three white seaxes (short Saxon swords) with gold handles on a red field. The new appliqué flag measures 121 x 182 cm and is made with black cotton satin, rayon, metallic lurex and Italian patent leather.
The Agency of Visible Womxn is a collective of Southend womxn, femme and non-binary artists. Founded in 2017 by Ruth Jones, the Agency has moved from an exhibition that mimicked a fictional institution to a growing group of womxn who act under, alongside or with the Agency to host reading groups, workshops, consultations, exhibitions and more.
The Black Essex Flag is an artwork made possible with funding through an Arts Council National Lottery Projects Grants and generously supported by Firstsite gallery.
All photos courtesy of The Agency of Visible Womxn, Southend and Anna Lukala Photography.