Esiri Erheriene-Essi: 2021




    What made you want to become an artist? 


    Lucian Freud and Jean-Michel Basquiat.


    They both corrupted me away from my intended path as a writer/journalist.

    I’ve always enjoyed art, my mum is a big fan of museums and when I was a kid they were free so she always took me to look at paintings. I also used to draw a lot, I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s before the internet and social media, and when my ‘allotted TV time’ was over I’d either draw or read. My secondary school art teacher encouraged me to take art more seriously when I was 12 and gave me my first art book on Basquiat and I fell in love with his paintings, his symbolism, his use of colour and expressive style. But it wasn’t until I was 16 and on a class trip with my Sixth Form art class to the Tate and saw Lucian Freud’s ‘Girl with a Striped Night Shirt’ (1983-5) that I felt awe when looking at an artwork, then rage and then jealousy. The painting is a pretty conservative portrait, most folks walk past it without a second glance. But I abandoned my class to just stare first at a distance then up close and marvelled at the abstract shapes and colours that made the portrait. I immediately wanted to paint, because the magic I felt looking at that painting. I too wanted to create something like that. And because of that incident, I begged my mother for 20 quid to buy a Freud book, begged my art teacher (the same one who gave me the Basquiat book) to teach me the basics of oil paint and then I threw myself into becoming ‘the next Lucian Freud’ and somehow stumbled into an art career more from delusion and obsession with painting than an actual plan.


    Could you tell us a little bit about your process of creating work?


    My creative process always begins with an image I’ve seen that I can’t get out of my head. In his book Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes tells this anecdote of seeing a photo of Napoleon’s brother Jerome and he went into a trance over it and couldn’t get over how he was looking into eyes that looked at Napoleon. The people that capture my attention aren’t as famous as Napoleon’s brother but they unleash that same feeling of amazement within me that propels me into the studio to paint them. So, I start with an image that I edit via photoshop - either by cropping or zooming into whatever it is I want to focus on. Then in the studio I make a underpainting sketch with acrylic ink - I can block in the colours in one sitting and it’s dry within an hour which is faster than thin washes of oil. I then decide whether to add xerox transfers or not which can take anywhere between a day or a week to add on, and then I start using oil paint. I work in layers and intuitively collaborate with the source image in bringing out a painting.


    Where do you source the archival material you use in your work?


    Everywhere - BBC archives, BFI archives, the National archives, films, documentaries, tv shows, second-hand shops, flea markets, magazines, books, black archives in the UK, France, Nigeria, America. I have a few photo dealers in the UK and America who have eBay or Etsy shops and contact me when they get new batches of photographs that they think I will like. I use images from my own family albums. From Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram I have found images that people list of their family members and have been given permission to use them by the posters. One of my favourite archives is the Nigerian Nostalgia tumblr, of Nigerian life from the early 1900s up until the 1990s that various people around the world send their family photos to.  Being British Nigerian, it’s great to see the various narratives of the country of my heritage, far beyond my parents and their friends stories.


    What do you find most striking when looking through old photographs? Are there any types of photos that you are more drawn to than others?


    It’s never one thing but more giving myself the right to explore the richness that I find in the quiet histories displayed within the image: a family portrait from 1978 of three generations celebrating something in a room in Rotterdam. Or a beaming couple standing outside a London registry office in 1963, either about to be or already married. A mother in 1956 holding her child looking at you as if you’ve interrupted the gathering, she is attending in Alabama, USA. Or a group of people from 1960s London, England dressed in their shimmering best at a dinner party. Right now, I’m currently working on a painting depicting 8 young ladies sitting together at a booth in a diner looking out with various expressions at the viewer. Boredom, disinterest, smiling, annoyance and one with a somewhat silent plea in the eyes for help. What drew me in initially with the source image was the aesthetic, the colour combination from the old Kodak instamatic photo, but what kept me looking was thinking about and speculating about who these women where, their relationship to each other, where they were in the world and this link as black women in the past who have brought us to the point we are in now. So, I used this image as a way to celebrate them so they are not forgotten. It’s more to do with a responsibility to make sure our stories are not as invisible as white canonical history may have us believe.

  • To what extent is research part of your practice?


    Research is part of my practice in the way that I’m obsessed with history, have been since I was a kid at secondary school, but it wasn’t until university when I was studying media studies that I was able to look into the multiple strands of Blackness and it’s infinite permutations that wasn’t just a soundbite for black history month in October. I’m a media junkie, so I read a lot, watch a lot of documentaries and follow news media so my research is a combination of all of that as well as an obsession to bring images of untold narratives of the Black African diaspora out of the archive and share them with the viewer by looking at the overlaps and commonalities as well as the differences. Western culture has been greatly influenced by Black people the world over and my pride in being tied to the African diaspora is about chasing our memories and working to preserve the multitude of histories using painting as a tool for speculative writing so that we are represented and counted. I use research to document our histories so the present-day young generation can see that

    Black experience, thinking, carefreeness and imagination - which are often denied in a world that constantly has us in states of violence, micro aggressions and survival - has always been there and always will, regardless of a world that imprisons, stereotypes, appropriates and mythologises us in order to hold up the myth of white supremacy.


    Could you tell us a little bit about your colour palette?


    My colour palette is pretty much inspired by growing up in the 1980s with VHS tapes and MTV as well as watching a lot of reruns of those old ‘Golden era’ Hollywood Technicolor films like Wizard of Oz 1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

    Technicolor changed the course of cinema forever with bright and bold visuals, saturated to the point of near-surrealist. 

    I grew up watching those films being played on the television and the dreamlike quality trance spell it put you under was magical. And now I use that sense of magic to paint a world that doesn’t exist on celluloid, Black vernacular history in all its Technicolor glory and magic.


    Which artists have had the biggest impact on you and your work?


    Jean-Michel Basquiat, Emory Douglas, Charles Burnett, Kerry James Marshall, Emma Amos, Billy Wilder, Alice Neel, Leon Kossof, Marlene Dumas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Francis Bacon, Henry Taylor, Walter Sickert, Chantal Joffe and the German expressionistic painters from die brücke group.

  • Where would you most like to see your work exhibited?


    Easy, the Tate. That’s my dream.

    London is my hometown (shout out Lewisham), I grew up going to Tate Britain and then Tate Modern and it changed my life and gave this working-class British Nigerian girl access to art and the greatest artists that have lived. I may not have seen myself represented on those white walls but it gave me space to dream and led me to this life chronicling Black people in my work.


    It would be fun to have my family and friends being able to see my work easily because both institutions are basically in their back garden of South London.


    You’ve made incredible work and had some amazing exhibitions. Looking back, what advice would you give to younger you?  


    I would tell younger me to stay as delusional and passionate and to worry and stress less. Just enjoy the process and trust in yourself more. It’s been an adventure for sure, I never imagined that I would ever leave London or that I’d still be plugging away and even more obsessed with painting now than then. I still pinch myself from time to time and I wouldn’t change a thing - the highs and the lows are what got me here doing what I love.


    What are you working on at the moment?


    I’m currently working on new paintings for an exhibition in Belgium this summer with Marauni Mercier Gallery. I’m a bit behind schedule due to lockdown, curfew and getting sick with the flu but I’m excited by these new works and the opportunity to show in Belgium for the first time.


    And then after a break to move house, recharge batteries and spend some time playing with my 3-year-old at various playgrounds, I’ll start working on new paintings for my first American solo exhibition in Los Angeles next year with Nino Mier Gallery. I’m looking forward to that a great deal.


    Who are your favourite contemporary artists?


    Wangari Methenge - @wangari_mathenge 

    Henry Taylor - @chinatowntaylor

    Daisy Patton - @daisy_patton

    Addie Kae - @addie_kae_art

    Alexandria Couch - @cosmocouch

    Dineo Seshee Bopape - @dineo_seshee 

    Kerry James Marshall - @kerryjamesmarshs 

    Maty Biayenda - @bbiayenda 

    Delphine Desane - @delphinedesanestudio 

    Cornelius Annor - @iam_c_annor 

    Faria van Creij - @fariavancreijcallender

    Joy Labinjo - @joylabinjo

    Isa van Lier - @isavanlier 

    Okiki Akinfe - @okikiakinfe

    Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum - @pamelaphatsimo 

    Mark Fleuridor - @mark_fleuridor 

    Eniwaye Oluwaseyi - @eniwaye_seyi 

    Kenneth Aidoo - @kennethjames 

    Ufuoma Essi - @ufuoma.essi 

    Amoako Boafo - @amoakoboafo 

    Kareem-Anthony Ferreira -@kareemanthony.artist 

    James Barnor - @james_barnor_archives 

    Stephen Townes -   @stephentowns 

    Jenna Gribbon - @jennagribbon 


    What one song should be added to the She Curates playlist?


    I’ve been listening to a lot of David Bowie recently whilst painting and I’m currently flipping out over ‘Sound & Vision’ when he sings ‘Blue, blue, electric blue’ so I’d say add that song for sure.