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 tells Alex Kahl about the process, intention and meaning behind recreating the mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers of these found photographs.
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.”