Photo: 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
"James’ focus on African Caribbean heritage in the UK at this conflicted time and her identity also as an Essex woman challenges stereotypes along intersectional lines and pulls into focus received and hidden narratives of the past that has brought us to this present: but with James’ intervention, we are now propelled to a different future"
Dr Cara Courage, Head of Tate Exchange, Tate
Elsa James (born in London, England) is a British African-Caribbean conceptual artist and activist living in Essex, England, since 1999. In 2021, she was a finalist for the prestigious Freelands Award with Focal Point Gallery and a selected artist for Bloomberg New Contemporaries. Her work is held in private and public collections, including the Government Art Collection, forming part of Art X-UK and Beecroft Art Gallery.
James' practice intervenes in the overlapping discourses of race, gender, diaspora, and belonging. Her Black British identity ignites her interdisciplinary, collaborative and research-based practice, located within the fields of performance, film, sound, text, socio-political and socially engaged art.
Since 2018, she has established a body of work focused on disrupting the Essex identity and cultural stereotypes, affixed with an ambition to demarcate 'Black space' that shifts the pejorative, derogatory nationwide perception held about the county and its people. Moreover, she has felt drawn to identifying parallels and juxtapositions between the county and notions of Blackness—both as a concept and lived experience. In 2019, she coined the term 'Black Girl Essex' to initiate a way of interrogating the historical 'White Essex Girl' term, which characterises women from Essex as unintelligent, promiscuous and materialistic. She describes this moment as "coming out as a Black Essex girl", and launching a space to emancipate and celebrate Black women and girls living in the county.
Othered in a region that has been historically Othered (2022), her most ambitious work to date, culminates the last four years of deconstructing the historical, temporal and spatial dimensions of what it means to be Black in Essex—arguably 'England's most misunderstood county' (Darley, 2019). The work includes performance in a three-part film installation and original sound works, alongside a neon text work, spoken word poetry and a new series of screen prints. She merges historical and speculative narratives, including the fictional voice of Black women during the mid-17th century Essex Witch Trials, contemporary accounts from Southend-based African asylum seekers and refugees, the voice of Black students at the University of Essex, South Essex LGBTQIA+ community and four anonymous Black men.
In November 2022, James was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in Essex.
In 2023, she will embark on a significant research and development period responding to new themes away from Essex that concern contemporary narratives of Empire and the British transatlantic slave trade from a personal perspective.
James studied as a mature student at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London (2006–10) and Goldsmiths, University of London (2013–15). She is a member of the feminist activist collective the Essex Girls Liberation Front (since 2017) based in Southend. She is currently the Chair of the Board of Trustees at The Old Waterworks, Essex.