Ufuoma Essi is an artist working with found footage to explore Black feminist epistemology
The London-based artist uses film to “experiment with how we process information and history through images”, disrupting those histories as she does so.
- Ruby Boddington
- 11 September 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
For a lot of creatives, it can take a while to find their medium; the avenue through which they best express themselves. But for southeast London-born and raised artist Ufuoma Essi, it’s always been clear. “I’ve always been interested in film and artist moving images, from a young age film was definitely the thing I was interested in the most,” she tells us. She would rush home from school to watch Pam Grier BlaxploitatIon films and, after a visit to the Tate in 2014 with her older sister (also an artist), where she saw the Stuart Hall Project by John Akomfra, Ufuoma knew “this is what I wanted to do”.
Ufuoma’s work revolves around Black feminist epistemology and the configuration of displaced histories, with the aim of re-centring those histories within her work. She does this through playing with pacing and time, creating layers that “seek to both disrupt historical narratives and act as points of surrogation for the viewer.” It’s a body of work which landed her on this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries list, despite the fact she describes herself as still defining her practice. “[I’m] trying to find ways to further my development as an artist,” she says. “I didn’t go to art school so my practice is self driven and I’m constantly evolving as an artist and carving out my style.”
Ufuoma studied history at UCL and in her third year studied abroad in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. It was here she first got into practical filmmaking, enrolling in as many classes as she could. “One of the classes I took was a Video 1 class in my second semester and it was led by James Howzell, who is an artist and professor based in Philadelphia,” she recalls. “The class changed my whole world. It introduced me to a lot of artist filmmakers such as Chris Marker, Wong Kar-Wai and Arthur Jafa.” Ufuoma’s time spent in Philadelphia had a major impact on her practice, as she was inspired by both the city and its Black art and film culture.
Back in London, she began experimenting with the film medium, making solo films and collaborations with friends before undertaking the REcreative Film School led by Saeed Taji Farouky “which is like an artist filmmaking programme at the South London Gallery.” It’s a programme she points to being paramount to her development as an artist as “it provided me with an artist filmmaking network in London”. She also highlights the influence her sister has had, as even though Ufuoma didn’t go to art school, she “got a lot of my art education from her”.
GalleryUfuoma Essi: Stills from ALTEA (Copyright Ufuoma Essi, 2018)
Film as a medium is one she enjoys for the freedom it affords her and how it allows her to communicate in a direct way. She adds, “Film allows me to experiment with how we process information and history through images and gives me the ability to disrupt that and play with the order of things.” Because of this, Ufuoma often works with found footage, describing herself as a “holder when it comes to consuming footage and archival film”.
In All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Ufuoma works with appropriated footage to explore the relationship between Black women’s collective experience with music, history and the act of reclamation. The film was influenced by writer Daphne A Brooks’ essay Black Female Soul Singing and the the Politics of Surrogation in the Age of Catastrophe. “Brooks’ work has had a significant impact on my work and I return to her texts quite frequently,” Ufuoma remarks.
The process of making All That You Can’t Leave Behind was cathartic for Ufuoma and initially, she was playing around with myriad ideas, not sure how to fully articulate them. “I took a break from editing and working on it and went to watch Nothing But a Man by Michael Roemer that was screening at the BFI,” she recalls. “I had first watched that film when I was 21 living in Philadelphia and I immediately fell in love with Abbey Lincoln. Watching it again in 2019 made me fall in love with her all over again and then she became quite a focal point for me and the work, so I went back and completely changed the film I was working on,” the artist explains. The film therefore uses Lincoln’s 1964 TV performance with her husband Max Roach as bookends, and a jumping off point for exploration within the full film. “The performances of Black women like Abbey, Nina Simone and Grace Jones create these specific Black feminist sites of surrogation for me that contribute to the radical histories of black women reclaiming their power and their own images for themselves,” Ufuoma says. “That’s what the film is about – the act of reclamation for Black women and the agency and power that comes with reclaiming our histories.”
Ufuoma’s practice can only be described as compelling for the way she utilises found footage – a method which many misuse. Through collecting and compiling, she builds narratives (although sometimes abstract ones) to uncover and speak to collective histories and truths. It’s something that clearly resonates with many as, as well as being a Bloomberg New Contemporary, Ufuoma has been selected for the Wysing Arts Center Syllabus VI; a collaboratively produced alternative learning programme. She’s currently also working on a new film for a group exhibition with the Narration Group, a collective Ufuoma is a member of based at South London Gallery, later in the year.
GalleryUfuoma Essi: Stills from I’m Glad You Made It Home (Copyright © Ufuoma Essi, 2020)
Ufuoma Essi: Still from All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Copyright Ufuoma Essi, 2019)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.