WePresent Presents: Esiri Erheriene-Essi

The way that Esiri Erheriene-Essi talks about images is very intense. They’ve always been prevalent in her life, whether she was using old family photographs to learn about her own history and identity or interning at picture desks for magazines and newspapers. Today, she bases each of her mixed media paintings on old photographs that depict everyday scenes from the lives of black families in the 1950s and ‘60s, showing them in vibrant technicolor where the old film cartridges of the time failed to do so. She speaks to Alex Kahl , staff writer at WePresent, about the process, intention and meaning behind recreating the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of these found photographs.

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Located in a building where almost every room is put to use by an artist of some kind, Esiri Erheriene-Essi’s studio in Amsterdam is a bright and spacious one. Daylight streams through four floor-to-ceiling windows, pouring light onto walls covered with canvases, some barely touched and others that seem close to completion. It’s a studio that’s seen tens of canvases come and go in the last year, since Esiri was nominated for the Prix De Rome in 2019, one of the Netherlands’ most prestigious art awards. The four nominees are given from May to September to create a series of works to be exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Not used to working in series and having not painted at all for over a year since having a son, Esiri panicked a little, but the deadline gave her a rush. “I was just excited to be back,” she says. “I had been in this mother zone, overwhelmed with emotions, and with this I could just leave that hat at the door and become Esiri the painter again.”

After working tirelessly for four and a half months, Esiri emerged with The Inheritance, a series of large-scale pieces, colorful and textured depictions of everyday scenes, each entirely based on real photographs from the past. From birthday parties to trips to the fair, she shows the ordinary moments in the lives of black families.

One reason Esiri likes to base her work on old imagery is because of the inherent racism that was in the photographic technology in the 1950s and ‘60s; the old Kodak film’s inability to capture the nuances of black skin tones is well documented. Esiri references a story about Jean-Luc Godard, who refused to use Kodak film on a shoot in Mozambique because he argued the film stock didn’t do justice to people’s appearance. “It would almost look like a Kerry James Marshall painting,” she says. She takes these old photographs and recreates them, using layers of oil paint to give texture and depth to the intricacies of the characters’ faces. “I wanted to use that technology and reclaim it and give prominence to the skin tones,” she says. “I want to bring these people back into technicolor, where before they were flat and one-dimensional.”

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Read the full article on WePresent via: www.wepresent.wetransfer.com/story/esiri-erheriene-essi/ 

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.