Studio Visit:
Esiri Erheriene-Essi

Issue no3
June / July 2019
Brussels / Bruxelles

The paintings of Esiri Erheriene-Essi are bursting with color, confronting and uncanny. She started off painting comics of her friends as degenerate youths, partying, doing drugs and puking. Nowadays her canvases combine historical references using text, painting and printed imagery. Juxtaposing President Kennedy, comics and happy families with Victorian porn and Nazi officers, she twists the historical narrative while exercising the viewer’s ability to associate.

Esiri currently has her first museum show Don’t Support the Greedy in the Arnhem Museum. Metropolis M visited her at her studio, a big empty store building in Amsterdam-Zuid, to talk about her work.

—Floor van LuijkWhen you make a new work, where do you start?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"Most commonly, I will see an image on the internet, or while reading a newspaper or magazine. I collected images for the past six years and have an archive of at least three external hard drives that I can use. Once an image sticks with me, I bring it to the studio, work it in Photoshop a bit, and start painting. Then I start teaming things together. With You Would Know (2011), I blew up a film still of Judy Garland and started painting it. The image on its own wouldn’t be interesting, so I just took the text from a book that was lying around, which happened to be a Black Panther activist biography. Later I also combined Garland with texts about feminism. [figure 12912_14776_DSC05968.JPG] By putting Garland and this activist side by side people got a little confused by their perception of the historical narrative, and it opened a dialogue. People started to ask me questions about whether or not she was actually into civil rights, and I was like, well, maybe? Why not! Actually she has been a great gay icon, that didn´t really matter to me at first. For me it’s more about remixing, mashing things up, putting them back together."

—Floor van LuijkHow do you select your subjects, what do you want to provoke in the viewer?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"I really like history and I want to show things from the historical narrative that are not widely known or seen. I want to give people an overload of information, not to suffocate but to get them to dig deeper and make up their own viewpoints. I often use sugary sweet colors, that attract people’s attention, like an ice-cream that you want to eat, that’s all really jolly on the surface, but when you take a step back you see something that is not so jolly and sweet, but a bit dark."

—Floor van LuijkWhy painting?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"First, I’m obsessed by the physicality of painting, that it’s messy, that it gets stinky. For me, painting also gives a certain freedom. It is not about documenting the world anymore. It also isn’t holy, it isn’t going to save anyone’s life, people can be touched by it though. I use the canvas like a spotlight, to shine light on some things. I always get obsessed with certain topics, like The Supremes, feminism or the assassination of President Kennedy. In painting I can intermix everything and play around with it. Another thing I like about painting is the silence and non-linearity, even though there is a lot of information, you can still make your own assumptions, you are the one taking direction."

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—Floor van LuijkMost of the stuff you put in your paintings seems to be of the postwar period, the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, why?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"That period fascinates me, there were so many shifts taking place, so many voices that were suppressed for so long and were finally able to speak. My obsession for lynching scenes was born out of reading a contemporary newspaper story though, and in those four years I found out about lynching in many time periods. My paintings show contemporary imagery, but also go back even to Victorian times."

—Floor van LuijkWhy wouldn’t you use more recent material?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"I like to keep a certain distance. First I painted lynching scenes because I was horrified by them, they were very emotional. I gradually moved away from the lynching to painting the crowds around them, that gave it some distance. It made me understand the importance of using imagery from the past. When something is fresh, like imagery from the war in Iraq, you can’t really read it, it’s too emotional. In that case you can’t really play around with it."

—Floor van LuijkYou’re a black woman, a lot of your work is about race issues and feminism, is it autobiographical in a way?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"In a way every work is autobiographical. I grew up in London, there nobody cares where you are from, and I was just making comics about my friends getting drunk and puking. When I moved to Amsterdam I started to think more about my background. My parents are from Nigeria, so half of my culture is Nigerian and half of my culture is English, so it’s another juxtaposition there, that’s what makes me. My work isn’t really about me though. Issues like race are relevant, even though the dialogue shifted from blacks to Muslims after 9/11, the same ideology is behind it. History mispronounced sounds like hysterical, I stole that quote from John Baldessari because I think that is really where my work is about."

—Floor van LuijkYour show in Arnhem ends in September, what are you doing next?

—Esiri Erheriene-Essi"I’ve been working very hard for the Arnhem show, so now I need to take some time to do research. I’m starting a lot of new work that has nothing to do with either The Supremes, Judy Garland, or the Kennedys. I’m also preparing for a show I’ll have in my gallery Ron Mandos in the near future."

Floor van Luijk is an Intern at Metropolis M

Esiri Erheriene-Essi Studied Media Studies and Fine Art at the University of East London, graduated from the Ateliers in 2009 and won the Koninklijke Prijs voor Vrije schilderkunst that same year. In 2011 she was nominated for the Volkskrant Beeldende Kunst Prijs.

Arnhem Museum
Dont Support the Greedy
18 april t/m 7 september

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2019