Elsa James (b.1968 in London, England) is a conceptual artist, producer and activist living in Essex since 1999. She has an interdisciplinary practice located within the fields of contemporary performance, text and language-based art, socio-political and socially engaged art.
Solo works employ aural and the archives to explore regionality of race; black subjectivity; and the historical, temporal and spatial dimensions of what it means to be black in Britain. 'Forgotten Black Essex' (2018) embodies two historical place-specific narratives from our national archives of two overlooked, under-researched and simply not recognised as significant black women who spent time in Essex. 'Circle of Blackness' (2019) commissioned by Furtherfield for Time Portals exhibition, celebrates the 150th anniversary of Finsbury Park by travelling through its past and future. Broadcast as a holographic image in the gallery in two parts (part one opened in May 2019), Circle of Blackness embodies the story of a black woman from the locality 150 years ago and 150 years in the future.
Her social practice includes advocating for the inclusion of marginalised voices and communities in the arts sector. Recent projects include; 'ProFest' (Autograph ABP), working with young women from disadvantaged backgrounds, to explore art and activism through a protest march and performance from the gallery into Liverpool Street and Shoreditch. 'New Ways of Seeing, Telling and Making' (Social Art Summit, Site Gallery), a visual provocation and debate that asked questions about how we can 'genuinely' address barriers to participation and involvement in the arts for Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
In 2015, she was commissioned by Southend-based charity CAST, to research the asylum and refugee community in Southend. This culminated in a 38-page report exposing the council's lack of addressing the current provision and needs of asylum seekers, failed asylum seekers and refugees living in the borough.
Elsa is a member of Girl Gang (2014 - present) - a UK wide group of womxn artists utilising performative actions to challenge expectations in public spaces. She is also a member of the feminist activist collective the Essex Girls Liberation Front (2017 - present) - a small group of womxn based in Southend campaigning to challenge and change the perception of the county’s much-maligned female stereotype.
Photographed by Tessa Hallmann 2019
"By racializing Essex, she exhumes the collective suppressed memory that the United Kingdom’s very existence is built on the foundations of enslaved and indentured black and brown bodies"
Harold Offeh, Artist
"It's very difficult to find an artist who can devise and lead a project dealing with these issues [racism, gender violence, youth crime and negative perceptions] and guide a group of young people through this"
Ali Eisa, Public Programme Manager, Autograph
"Elsa’s work intervenes sensitively in the overlapping discourses of race, gender, diaspora and belonging, and offers a nuanced take on these issues informed by a deep and critically aware research practice"
Dr Jon Blackwood, Reader and Research Lead, Grays School of Art, RGU
"I consider her to be one of the most vital artistic and political voices in the UK at the moment"
Dr Cara Courage, Head of Tate Exchange, Tate