I Am Here Because You Were There: A Studio Visit With Esiri Erheriene-Essi
The lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing informed so many new bodies of work that were created in the past year. For some, the pandemic triggered the exploration of the feelings or imagery related to aloneness and melancholy, while others resorted to celebrating the moments of closeness in order to push through this tough period. It turns out that our friend, Esiri Erheriene-Essi, was one of those people that looked into the past in order to be able to deal with the present and await, a hopefully brighter future. And those works will be presented at her fifth solo show with Ron Mandos Gallery in Amsterdam, I Am Here Because You Were There, which will be on view starting March 6, 2021.
"For 3 months I couldn’t paint as I was afraid to leave my house," the artist we've featured in our Spring 2020 issue and on Radio Juxtapoz, told us when we've visited her studio recently. "I was anxious all the time and all I wanted to do was huddle down with my family in London at my mother's house, but I couldn't for obvious reasons." Unable to go to the studio or use her tools of the trade, she continued adding to her archive of Black vernacular photos she's been building since 2016 with photographs from online auctions, but this time with a more focused approach. "I loved looking at people enjoying themselves in groups unaware of keeping a 2-meter distance rule and I got nostalgic for and escaped into these narratives from a bygone era," she told us about the particular type of photographs that were resonating with her. So once some of the life routines were restored and she was back in her studio, all she wanted to do was celebrate the people in those images and make paintings that recorded everyday stories and ordinary moments. Over the course of 10 months or so, Erheriene-Essi painted 11 new works that are focusing on this particular subject.
And even most of her work is about reimaging the stories and memories of unknown people, The Birthday Party (2021), 150 x 200 cm, oil, ink, and Xerox transfer on linen, is an exception to this rule and adding a new perspective to an already incredible story. "The painting depicts a smiling woman celebrating her birthday huddled in a group hug with some friends who grin out at the viewer, with one guest wearing a pink Arsenal Football Club hat, the one holding the cake, being none other than a laughing Steve Biko," the artist told us. The party took place in 1969 in Durban, South Africa, and the source image is from the personal photo album of Lindiwe Edith Gumede Baloyi, the smiling birthday girl in the image everyone had gathered to celebrate. Previously unpublished, the photo was made available to the public by Lindiwe’s nephew, historian, and librarian Mwelela Cele, and the artist stumbled across it via Twitter in September 2020, on the 43rd anniversary of Biko's death by the hands of apartheid police officers.
"What first drew me to the image is how the viewer gets to see a private, relaxed everyday side of such a famous activist. The joy that emanates from the wide-open grins are infectious and this image is how I want to remember him, a friend who steals his friend’s birthday cake for a photo opportunity, alongside the public life of being an activist of The Black Consciousness Movement," Erheriene-Essi reveals the importance of showing the "in-between" moments of both ordinary and extraordinary people. "I am very thankful to have been granted permission from Lindiwe’s nephew, Mwelela Cele, to use the original photo as a source for this painting," she concluded.
"Championing and chronicling black experiences by exploring untold, often forgotten and even neglected narratives of people from the African diaspora through painting as speculative history writing, collaging the past and the present—acknowledging just how fragmented and circumstantial history is," London-born artist explained to us the idea behind the new images which are portraying the somewhat alternate reality of times past. Through her practice, the artist is continuously filling the historic gap by telling the everyday stories of people that unjustly remained voiceless. and undocumented. Capable of mixing authentic Instamatic photographs with some of the personal experiences or memories, historic events, as well as contemporary culture elements, Erheriene-Essi is celebrating the regular lives of regular people through the captivating thick, gloopy oil paintings. "I want to give the spotlight to these people, I want to celebrate them because I really think that if it wasn't for all of these people doing what they did in all of these different parts of the world, I couldn't be here doing what I'm doing now, living my dream to fruition," the artist told us in our 2020 interview. Borrowing the title from a quote by Stuart McPhail Hall, a Jamaican-born British Marxist sociologist, cultural theorist, and political activist, I Am Here Because You Were There is a more focused continuation of the artist's ongoing pursuits. —Sasha Bogojev