Elsa James (born in London, England) is a British African-Caribbean conceptual artist and activist living in Essex, England, since 1999. She was a finalist for the prestigious Freelands Award with Focal Point Gallery in 2021 and, this year, a nominated recipient of the Henry Moore Foundation Artists Award. Her work is held in private and public collections, including the Government Art Collection and Beecroft Art Gallery, for which she became the first Black British artist to be acquired into the gallery's collection. In 2022, she was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in Essex.
Elsa's artistic practice is rooted in contemporary Black activism and invested in an ongoing questioning of visibility and belonging that centres Blackness as a methodology for liberation. Through an interdisciplinary, collaborative and research-based practice, she works across live performance, film, prints, spoken word, neon, and sound. Since 2018, she has pursued an incisive exploration into the historical, temporal and spatial dimensions of what it means to be Black in Essex. Through works such as Forgotten Black Essex (2018), Black Girl Essex: Here We Come, Look We Here (2019), The Black Essex Flag (2019), The Black Interior (2022) and Othered in a region that has been historically Othered (2022), she builds critically on Gillian Darley's assertion of Essex as being 'England's most misunderstood county', and offers new and reconsidered perceptions to expand on outdated pejorative narratives ascribed to the county and its people. As Dr. Jon Blackwood (2021) points out, [Essex] 'provoked a deep self-reflective process of thinking and understanding not only what it meant to be black in Essex, but also how a black person could have agency to talk about Essex meaningfully and to challenge not only the stereotypical views of outsiders but of fellow citizens resident in the county'.
Her current artistic research, supported by Arts Council England, has evolved beyond centring on Essex as a topic and location to exploring the profundity of chattel enslavement and the British empire. This shift was ignited by the MP David Lammy's stirring speech in response to the Windrush scandal in 2018, and in honour of this inspiring moment, led to her debut neon artwork, Ode to David Lammy MP (2022).
She has recently presented her work at Museum of London Docklands (2023); Unit London (2023); Birkbeck Cinema (2023); Tate Britain (2023); Gagosian, London (2023); Art Exchange, Colchester (2023); TJ Boulting, London (2022); South London Gallery (2022); Focal Point Gallery, Southend, (2022); Goldsmith CCA, London (2022); Firstsite, Colchester (2021) and the RadicalxChange Conference, New York (2020).
Elsa studied as a mature student; she completed a BA Fine Art Degree at Chelsea College of Arts (2006-10), graduating with first-class honours, and holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Participatory and Community Arts from Goldsmiths (2013-15). She was a member of the feminist activist collective the Essex Girls Liberation Front (2017-23).