'Hester & Hester Woodley' film still. St Mary's Little Parndon Church, Harlow, Essex. Image: Andy Delanley 2018
FORGOTTEN BLACK ESSEX
An exhibition installation comprising still and moving images with spoken word narrative.
"In Forgotten Black Essex, the implied title is disarmed; it orchestrates a retelling of two place-specific narratives, presenting them with a tactful sense of agency that transcends across time and distinctly asserts resistance against the parochial, mono-cultural tendency to forget or exclude the whole experience of others. The embodiment of histories by James as a female Black artist pulls us between both past and present, either by account of Princess Dinubolu’s refusal to assimilate or relics that tell of the enslavement of Hester Woodley. This is not an attempt to harmonise, but rather to instate how the careful treatment of the lived experience by each woman here can and must hold the present to account.” James Ravinet, Assistant Curator, Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea
Artist and creative activist Elsa James has long had an interest in the hidden histories and untold stories of black presence in Britain. Following a period of research supported by Arts Council England and Southend-on-Sea Borough Council, Forgotten Black Essex is what James describes as 'the start of a conversation, in order to develop further work’ as she explores the potency of these personal and social histories swept under the rug of a white-written English past. She uncovers publicly for the first time a social treasure trove of archival documentation, including parish records, wills, newspapers reports and letters - all which have previously been overlooked, under-researched or simply not recognised as significant, but which are vital to understanding black representational politics and cultural history today.
For James, there is a need to counter the notion that multi-cultural Britain began with the arrival of the Empire Windrush after the war. She feels a sense of duty to contribute to the ongoing process of redressing persistent ‘absence’ within the historical record, to shift the collective narrative we hold about black presence in Britain and to continue the national debate around black subjectivity.
The conversation begins here in Essex - the county where James has lived for the past two decades…
Positioning herself at the centre of the work through spoken word, still and moving images, James assembles a personal homage to two distinctive black women. We are introduced to Hester Woodley - a house slave brought to England from the Caribbean who received a surprise honour upon her death - and to Princess Dinubolu - a beauty pageant competitor who came from West Africa on an audacious adventure. Both women spent significant time in Essex. We know this because their accounts are documented in our national archives, yet, both their stories have shifted into the realms of the county’s ‘forgotten black past’...
"My approach to working with these two accounts of archival documentation is not just to retell or reenact them. Rather, I am curious to ground them in the present by layering a contemporary lens that reinterprets how the two stories resonate with me as a black woman living in Essex." Elsa James
HESTER & HESTER WOODLEY
Photo images: Amaal Said
Photo images: Amaal Said
Forgotten Black Essex is a pilot project funded through a research and development grant from Arts Council England, with an additional small grant from Southend-on-Sea Borough Council. With partnership support from Metal, Take the Space and Autograph ABP, and collaborative support from S I Martin: researcher, Andy Delaney: moving images, Amaal Said: still images and Gareth Jones: sound recordist.