July 23 – August 27, 2022
I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.
-Toni Morrison, Beloved, p. 88
Nino Mier Gallery is pleased to present Rememory, an exhibition of paintings by UK-born and Amsterdam-based Nigerian painter Esiri Erheriene-Essi, on view in Los Angeles from July 23 – August 27, 2022.
Rememory constitutes a speculative history of the 20th century African diaspora. Using figures and settings found in both vernacular and art photography, Erheriene-Essi re-imagines scenes of everyday communion and levity in a technicolor glow. Throughout the backdrops and settings of her paintings, glimmers of Black cultural and political history emerge, from birthday caps emblazoned with the Black Panther icon in Pass the Parcel, to the portrait of bell hooks pasted on the wall behind a family in The Keeper of Secrets, and imagery of Fela Kuti and Betty Davis in The Intermission.
The exhibition is titled after a neologism coined in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and refers to crystallized, replayed images culled either from an individual's memories, or from the collective consciousness of their community. Erheriene-Essi, an avid researcher and collector of vernacular photography, gathers images of the black diaspora in order to make “the picture of it [stay]”. Photography research has long been a lynchpin of the artist’s practice. Born to Nigerian parents who moved to London, Erheriene-Essi grew up consulting family photographs in order to imagine the world and extended family networks she hails from. When she began painting, she used the methods she developed as a younger girl to build pathways of connection across countries and eras. The artist begins each work by digging through physical and digital troves of lost or forgotten imagery of quotidian life, acquiring hundreds of copies of school photos, family vacation snapshots, and images of celebrations, big or small. Her aim is to consolidate something cinematic in each painting – to create an image which suggests thought, action, intention, personality, movement, and narrative in a single, fixed image.
The tableau portraits in Rememory, composed of painting, xerox transfer, and collage, bring figures in Erheriene-Essi’s found photographs into new environments. The Visitors is based on a photograph Erheriene-Essi acquired from a photography dealer in Michigan. She was drawn to the women’s elated expressions, but wanted to transport them from the dingy interior they were photographed in, to a compelling, new landscape. In the painting, they smile instead before a bygone London of the 1960s culled from an early Kodachrome advertisement, experiencing a trip they might never have taken in their actual lives, per the artist. In The Tourists, two women and a man pose in a booth after what appears to be a long night out. But the walls of the bar are replaced with a spectral, blue image of figures moving through a dark atmosphere. The background image is based on a photograph taken in midcentury Democratic Republic of Congo by the Angolian photographer Jean Depara.
Erheriene-Essi prefers painting with bold, thick brushstrokes focused on augmenting highlights and shadows, and with tonalities pushed to saturated extremes. The bright colors in her paintings, in part, work against the racism of early photographic technologies that caught a smaller range of darker tones, thus unable to adequately capture black skin on film. Xerox transfers – sometimes washed with acetone – embed images onto walls and backgrounds that juxtapose scenes from other eras with the primary figures of the compositions. Her use of glue transfer brings a hyperreal, poster-like potency and immediacy to t-shirt designs and wall hangings.
Alongside Erheriene-Essi’s more intricately balanced compositions, a series of four portraits bring moments of stillness and minimalism to the exhibition. These works belong to an ongoing series titled we real cool after the 1960 Gwendolyn Brooks poem. Most of these images are based on school portraits of, to the artist, anonymous girls, and comprises an homage to Black womanhood and motherhood. One of the young women portrayed is, however, not anonymous: it depicts Joetha Collier, a promising young student murdered on the night of her Drew, Mississippi graduation in 1971. Her portrait, simply titled Joetha, alongside the larger painting The Remembrance, was commissioned by The Atlantic for a major article written by historian Keisha N. Blain on Joetha Collier’s murder and (largely forgotten) legacy.
Sometimes Erheriene-Essi’s family members or prominent historical figures surface alongside the unknown people in her works, but not always. However, she understands her subjects as her mothers, grandmothers, and friends. Her figures are her ancestors: the project at large functions as an archive of Black life and history.
Esiri Erheriene-Essi (b.1982, London; lives and works in Amsterdam) received an MFA from University of East London. She has had solo shows at Maruani Mercier, Knokke; Galerie Ron Mandos, Amsterdam; and Museum Arnhem, Arnhem. In 2019, she was nominated for the Prix de Rome, one of the Netherlands’ most prestigious art awards. She is also included in ‘Tomorrow is a Different Day – Collection 1980-Now’ currently at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, among many other group exhibitions worldwide.