Galerie Ron Mandos is proud to present I am here because you were there, a solo exhibition with new works by Esiri Erheriene-Essi. The paintings on show are an inventory of everyday stories and ordinary moments. They are championing and chronicling Black experiences by exploring untold, often forgotten and even neglected narratives of people of the African diaspora. Erheriene-Essi’s paintings can be seen as speculative history writing, collaging the past and the present – acknowledging just how fragmented and circumstantial history is.

Building on her previous series The Inheritance (Familiar Strangers) from 2019, these works are based on Black vernacular source images from the artist’s archive, created with a commitment to make visible the richness of Black lives. As a painter, Erheriene-Essi is tickled by the distinctive colour scheme of the old photos, often saturated and faded at the same time. She uses a vast range of colour in her paintings as a way to make up for the flattened, dulled and darkened portrayal of brown skin in the instamatic photographs from the 1950s to 1980s due to a design ‘oversight’ – the film being created with the best representation of only white skin in mind.

The British/Jamaican cultural theorist Stuart Hall made famous the words of the British Sri Lankan political thinker Ambalavaner Sivanandan; “We are here because they were there […]” which sharply pinpoints post-colonial migration. In describing historical connections the line can serve as a reminder whenever ‘whiteness’ finds de-colonising itself exhausting. However, Erheriene-Essi says, “I refuse to continue being in relation to whiteness (as some make-believe norm), so here I choose to use this quote in a different way. With the title I am here because you were there I want to honour and celebrate people like my mother Helen, her mother Oghenochuko and her grandmother Odavwaro who all walked different paths in different times but all have enabled me to walk mine.”

‘We are here because you were there. There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.’

– Stuart Hall, 2008

ABOUT Esiri Erheriene-Essi

Born in 1982 in London, United Kingdom
Lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Esiri Erheriene-Essi is predominately a painter of mid to large-scale paintings concerned with figuration, history and society. She is captivated by history – in particular, images, objects, and documents which we can return to, in order to examine both individual and shared memories and histories. A large part of her practice entails collecting and creating an archive, which could potentially become incorporated into her work. Archives are important to the artist as they create links and orders that she can question and play with – she searches for the discrepancies, the silences, in order to, through painting, create interruptions and assaults on the canonical historical narrative. With hindsight, bias and curiosity, she takes these discordances and brings them up to the surface. Erheriene-Essi continuously re-edits the narratives with the hope of robbing history of some of its tyrannical power by creating new scenarios. Or rather, she is incessantly attempting to imagine more humane and liberating narratives than what has gone before. In the process she perhaps slightly changes our readings of history and thereby shows how we write the present.

In her work, Erheriene-Essi makes many references to popular culture, because popular culture is profoundly mythic and loaded. The canvases she makes are a theatre of popular desires and fantasies, where we all can discover and play with the process of identification. These ‘theatrical scenes’ show the imagined as well as the underrepresented, not only to the viewer but also to the artist herself. The paintings ‘play’ in their own way – they are telling a story, even though the scenes have no beginning, middle or end – they are cut off mid flow, out of context, are frozen, silent and still. Yet they have ‘sound’ as if they are performing and want to be heard. The audience is continuously invited to watch as well as to try and decipher the haphazard plot in which characters are encased in. The good thing about performing on canvas is that anything is possible – and that is what intrigues Erheriene-Essi the most.