Elsa James: Navigating Ancestral Paths in Lagos

Elsa James: Navigating Ancestral Paths in Lagos

This November, G.A.S. Lagos welcomed Elsa James, an established Essex-based artist, filmmaker, researcher, and activist for a month-long residency in Lagos. She aims to use the period to confront facets of her African heritage while addressing the profoundness of histories fractured by the transatlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. Through introspection and forging connections, Elsa endeavours to create a fresh body of work inspired by her discoveries.


In Nigeria, Elsa eagerly anticipates engaging with local communities to gain fresh insights into her ancestral roots and the historical tapestry. Her journey will take her to notable sites, including Badagry, home to the Badagry Heritage Museum, and Calabar, housing the poignant Slave History Museum. But Elsa's expedition isn't just a solitary quest; it's a collaborative endeavour. She aspires to connect with fellow artists, curators, and gallerists within the vibrant Nigerian art scene, forging bonds that may give birth to future collaborations.

What is the current focus of your creative practice?

My creative practice is currently centred on exploring the complex legacies of the British Empire and the profound impact of chattel and transatlantic slavery. Through my work, I aim to delve into the complexities of colonialism's aftermath and the lasting trauma of slavery, fostering dialogue and understanding about their contemporary relevance. By examining these interconnected themes, I seek to shed light on the broader issues of justice, reconciliation, and the interconnectedness of our global society.


Ode to David Tammy MP (2022), Installation view at Focal Point Gallery. Image credit: Anna Lukala


What drew you to apply for this residency and how do you think it will inform your wider practice?

As a black British woman born to Caribbean parents, my curiosity about my ancestral heritage in West Africa is profound. This residency presents a unique opportunity to explore and advance a new chapter in my artistic practice. Immersing myself in an unfamiliar environment will facilitate the evolution of my work and enable it to take on unknown forms and morph and mutate in all kinds of new and unexpected ways.


A Jab Jab Awakening Towards a New Essex (2022). Film still: Dedham Vale, Essex. Image credit: Andy Delaney


Can you give us an insight into how you hope to use the opportunity?

I see this residency as an opportunity to contemplate disrupted histories and ancestral connections and inspire new ideas for a body of work that embodies/unites/unbinds notions of 'the restlessness of spirit' and 'the Black Atlantic'.


Free to Flourish (2023). Black Blossoms X Late at Tate Britain. Photo credit: Eugenio Falcioni, Tate Gallery


About Elsa James

Elsa James (born in London, England) is a British African-Caribbean conceptual artist and activist living in Essex, England, since 1999. Her artistic practice is rooted in contemporary Black activism and invested in an ongoing questioning of visibility and belonging that centres Blackness as a methodology for liberation. Through an interdisciplinary, collaborative and research-based practice, she currently works across live performance, film, prints, spoken word, neon, and sound. 

She was a finalist for the prestigious Freelands Award with Focal Point Gallery in 2021 and, this year, a nominated recipient of the Henry Moore Foundation Artists Award. Her work is held in private and public collections, including the Government Art Collection and Beecroft Art Gallery, for which she became the first Black British artist to be acquired into the gallery's collection. In 2022, she was named one of the 50 Most Influential People in Essex.



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