THERE’S plenty of firsts taking place at the Firstsite Art Gallery at the moment.

Leading the way is Taking Up Space, the first major solo presentation by British artist Emily Mulenga.

Originally from Burton Upon Trent, Emily only graduated from art school in 2013 but with her striking and provocative digital images has since taken part in shows across the UK, around the world and online.

Previous group shows include Short Circuit in Birmingham, Venice and Copenhagen, and Abandoned Margins: Policing the Black Female Body, which took place at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids and the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago in the US last year.

Also last year Emily released a short film for Channel 4’s Random Acts programme which has toured the UK in the Playback Touring Exhibition.

Now she’s putting on her first solo exhibition, which features a selection of dynamic moving image works alongside animated GIFs and personalised emojis, showcasing Emily’s use of digital language to investigate identity in the Internet age.

“The whole digital thing began at university,” Emily tells me. “Before that I painted but it was still very personal and grounded with my own identity, even back then. I’m quite a reserved person so I suppose it was a good way of expressing myself and who I was.”

Preferring to use her own image, rather than others, Emily’s first got noticed through her 2015 work Orange Bikini in which Emily’s avatar is shown performing in a sequence of fantasy scenes, including taking a selfie, singing, pole dancing, and swimming with a dolphin, affirming her own independence and power to celebrate beauty without the influence of a male gaze.

Which I suggest is very relevant at the moment with the on-going Harvey Weinstein scandal.

“A lot of my images are unapologetically sexual,” she says. “First and foremost it’s about exploring different ideas within my work and that’s to do with how the female black body is perceived in the outside world. But I realise there’s some kind of responsibility as an artist when you’re putting work out there. To explain what you’re doing. I do prefer people to look at the images and make up their own opinions of it themselves.”

Using video, digital technology and online spaces, Emily explores how these platforms promote ideas of self through the body, race and sexuality, questioning the perceived democratic nature of these channels, particularly in relation to how the black feminine experience is presented online.

As well as Orange Bikini, Emily has created a new work as a sequel to that piece called 4 Survival 4 Pleasure, which follows the avatar on a journey through a succession of luxurious digital landscapes, touching on the assertion that whether she is a concert pianist or dressed in jewels and feathers for carnival, a woman is equally valuable, important and justified.

There’s also a whole wall dedicated to her MulengaMoji series, which appropriates the popular vocabulary of emojis and GIFs with her own face into familiar icons such as a crying, winking or angry emojis alongside symbols drawn from her own work including afro, selfie, and twerking emojis.

“It’s been a real thrill to have my first solo show here,” she says finally, “and while I’ve been presented with plenty of challenges putting on the exhibition, to have this kind of showcase for my work at this early stage of my career is a wonderful opportunity.”

And Firstsite are not stopping there with the opportunities because running alongside Emily Mulenga’s Taking Up Space exhibition is We: You: Me, a collection of works brought together by three young curators also just embarking on their careers.

Firstsite has invited the East Anglian-based curators to explore contemporary identity through their own areas of research in a unique group exhibition.

While Jade Anderson, who is based in Norwich, offers up an insight into the identity of the artist through their own studios and spaces, Charlie Bryan, who is from Cambridge, contrasts natural and manmade environments to highlight art that challenges how we interpret the planet we live on.

For Laurie Taylor Straiton, who lives and works in Colchester, having a show at Firstsite is perhaps a bigger prize to cherish.

Her part of the exhibition, much like the other two curators, has taken work from artists based in East Anglia, but her theme has been about art that comments on issues surrounding gender, questioning the superfluous characteristics assigned to men and women.

Laurie says: "For someone who used to work here, it's a real thrill to be putting on this show at Firstsite.

"When we were told about the project we all came to the building and between us got to choose the spaces we were going to work with.

"I'm really pleased with the room I've got and I've had a brilliant time putting together the art that would for me sit really well inside it.

"In terms of the artists one's a graduate from Essex University and another is in their second year, so they're very local."

Taking Up Space runs until November 5, while We: You: Me runs until November 19.

For more information on opening times and other events going on at the gallery either call 01206 713700 or go on-line at