FORGOTTEN Black Essex is the first solo project by Elsa James - a Southend-based artist, producer and creative activist - since she graduated from Chelsea Art School in 2010.

It opens next Thursday, February 22, as a one day free exhibition held at Chalkwell Hall, Chalkwell Park, Westcliff, from 6pm until 9pm.

The work records Elsa's personal reflection concerning the historical accounts of two distinct black women, whose stories have been unearthed from our national archives.

Both women spent time in Essex, however, both their stories have shifted into the realms of the county’s ‘forgotten black past’.

ELSA James was on the school run when her attention was caught by historian Dr Caroline Bressey talking on a Radio 4 show, about the face of a black man - a sailor - sculpted into the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.

Echo: KB 12 Feb 2018 Elsa James - Forgotten Black History project Elsa-James-by-Amaal-Said - church

She was immediately intrigued to learn about this little known about man, being one of a group of black sailors who served alongside England's most famous naval hero.

"I found it so interesting. Dr Bressey was saying how the black man in the sculpture is visible, and yet he is invisible" recalls Elsa. "Her point was that how many people even know there were black sailors helping Nelson? I didn't. We don't get taught about that in school when we learn about Lord Nelson. It's like, for some reason, something is missing from mainstream British history, and black people were part of that history."

Dr Bressey had been referring to the content of a programme called Black and British: A Forgotten History, presented by British-Nigerian historian and BAFTA winning TV presenter David Olusoga, as part of Black History Month.

When Elsa watched the programme, she became further fascinated and astonished about Olusoga's findings aired during his six part series, such as the evidence there were black Roman soldiers.

Elsa was so struck, she knew she had to delve further.

As a black female artist who grew up in London with her Caribbean parents, Elsa had always felt a sense of somehow being on the outside, something that is perhaps a reason for her work often turning towards championing women's causes and black lives.

For example, she is one of the artists whose work will be shown at a show opening this Saturday at the Beecroft held by The Essex Feminist Collective who are presenting The Agency of Visible Women.

She also speaks to me about a responsive piece she once did in reaction to the journalist Rod Liddle, who was accused of racism for making offensive remarks about the African-Caribbean community. He'd said in a blog for The Spectator magazine: "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks."

Elsa responded to this by making a film in which she appears, eating goat curry with rap music blaring in the background.

"I'm interested in creating responsive work, and am particularly interested in black females" she said. "Hearing about these forgotten stories, something had been triggered inside me. I felt really inspired and I felt there had to be more stories which I needed to know about.

"At the time, I was listening a lot to an album called A Seat At the Table by Solange [the record earned massive praise from the music industry and Black Lives Matter movement]. I was like a teenager, playing it over and over, but it helped give me energy and feed my inspiration to work on something that was meaningful to me. You know, I am acutely aware that even today, in the 21st Century, people will look at me because I am different, that children will point in the street at my afro hair. That has happened to me - a little girl pointed and her mother looked really embarrassed and said it was because the little girl liked my hair. But I think it is because the little girl isn't exposed to many people of colour, so I look strange to her. In this town, you can be somewhere like the Milton ward, which is fairly diverse, and then go to Leigh, practically next door, and not see anyone of colour around."

With these emotions and her curiosity and motivation bubbling up, Elsa knew she had to find some forgotten stories about black women in history. She spoke to her friend, author and historian Rachel Lichtenstein, from Leigh, who suggested Elsa contact a black historian called Steve Martin. He had been involved in the Shorelines and Estuary project hosted by Metal arts, where he spoke about black mariners on the C18th estuary.

"I thought it would be great to team up with him" Elsa said. "When we had our first meeting, I asked him about any stories he knew of concerning forgotten black women in history. I didn't want to know so much about stories of women in London or other major cities, because I thought that would be too obvious, so I asked if he knew of any from rural parts of the UK. He said 'actually, Essex has a really rich black history'. I thought 'wow! I can focus on Essex'. "

Elsa set about applying for arts council funding, working into the budget a fee for Steve Martin, so he could work on researching some stories. She was granted the funding, and also a small amount from Southend Borough Council's 125th anniversary budget, who were interested in her finding stories relating specifically to the area.

She was able to honour that request, when one of the stories was unearthed about a woman called Princess Dinubolu from Senegal who came to Southend in 1908 to enter a beauty pageant competition at the Kursaal. Her story provoked a national frenzy.

Echo: Elsa James by Amaal Said - steps

Elsa said: "People thought 'how dare she? She was taken by carriage down the middle of Southend High Street where word got around about her in 15 minutes, because people were outraged, and she was taken to the Palace Hotel. But I think by reading of her witty remarks made to reporters at the time, she was having a laugh with them. It made me feel proud of her."

Another story is about Hester Woodley who arrived in Harlow from St Kitts during the 1700’s as a house slave to the Woodley family. Her story is intertwined with her granddaughter also named Hester, however, when Hester senior dies in 1767, the Woodleys erect a ‘fine headstone’ in her memory – an extraordinary gesture and extremely unusual for a slave. Despite this gesture, Elsa still finds the story a sad one, because at the end of the day, she was a person, and she was enslaved.

Elsa said: "My approach to working with these two stories is not just to retell or re-enact them, rather I am curious to ground them in the present by layering a contemporary lens that reinterprets how the stories resonate with me as a black woman currently living in Essex."

To help capture her responses to these stories, Elsa enlisted the help of Southend based film maker Andy Delany and photographer Amaal Said, a Danish-born Somali photographer, who mainly takes pictures of Women of Colour in an attempt to widen representation.

"Amaal has an amazing eye and of course, Andy is a well established filmmaker. It was probably a new, strange way for Andy to work, because I didn't start with a storyboard or anything, I just wanted him to film me responding to the stories, as I retraced the steps the women would have taken. I worked out the narrative of the film, after I had the footage and the photographs, which is a back to front way of working really for a film maker."

The idea is that this finished piece of work will act as a pilot for further stories to be unearthed and spoken about, says Elsa.

"We only had enough money to work on two of the stories, but I know there are more to be told and I would love to tell them" she added. "I hope to take this pilot around other galleries and it become a much bigger project."

Forgotten Black Essex is funded by the Arts Council England and Southend Borough Council, with partnership support from Metal, Take the Space and Autograph ABP, and collaborative support from S I Martin, Andy Delaney, Amaal Said and Gareth Jones.

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