Think you know Essex? Think again.

That's what Southend artist Elsa James wants people to do and there's still a bit of time to help her do that as her residency at the Firstsite gallery Colchester comes to an end.

Posing questions about black identity in Essex, asking in particular how African Caribbean cultures can be upheld, Black Girl Essex includes three film works - Forgotten Black Essex (which debuted at Metal in Southend), 150 Lies Myths and Truths and Goat Curry and Rap.

Elsa’s work focuses on opinions held towards people of African Caribbean heritage and the stereotyping of Essex women.

She says: “Talking about race, inequality, visibility, representation and ‘blackness’ in Britain is an impassioned discussion I have been having since - well since as far back as I can remember! I can recall countless upsetting stories that I overheard as a child of my Windrush generation parents discussing with my aunts and uncles about the blatant everyday racism and unfairness they would encounter.

"Later I would encounter institutional racism with my school years spanning the Seventies through to the mid-Eighties.

“These discussions haven’t stopped and I continue to have them on a regular basis with trusted friends and family.”

Originally from West London, Elsa has been an Essex girl since 1999, first moving to Thurrock and then finally settling in Southend ten years later.

With a passion for art right from an early age, Elsa dreamt of going to the Chelsea School of Art but instead ended up in the fashion industry.

"I had a fantastic art teacher," she tells me, "who took us to the art school and I just remember seeing all these easels and paints all over the various studios and thinking this is the place for me.

"Unfortunately art was the only subject I excelled at school. Years later I discovered I was dyslexic. And no one went to college in my family. My older sisters had both gone straight out to work and my mum told me I needed to go and get myself a trade as well.

"At least by working in fashion I could use my love of drawing and actually the sewing, cutting and patterns have been useful in my art work."

Eventually Elsa got a job as a model travelling all over the world, before settling down, having children, and taking on a job in HR.

"My career has definitely been a collection of highs and lows," she smiles. "The modelling was great but I've also worked in an amusement arcade at one point."

Eventually, some 20 years after leaving school, Elsa finally decided to make her original dream come true and applied for the Chelsea School of Art.

As a black female artist who grew up in London with Caribbean parents, Elsa had always felt a sense of somehow being on the outside, something that is perhaps a reason for her work often turning towards championing women’s causes and black lives.

Take her responsive piece she did in reaction to the journalist Rod Liddle, who was accused of racism for making offensive remarks about the African-Caribbean community.

He’d said in a blog for The Spectator magazine: “The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry....”

Elsa responded to this by making a film in which she appears, eating goat curry with rap music blaring in the background.

“I’m interested in creating responsive work, and am particularly interested in black females” she says. “Hearing about these forgotten stories triggered something inside me. I knew there had to be more stories, and I needed to know them.

“At the time, I was listening a lot to an album called A Seat At the Table by Solange. I was like a teenager, playing it over and over, but it helped give me energy and feed my inspiration to work on something that was meaningful to me.

"You know, I am acutely aware that even today, in the 21st Century, people will look at me because I am different, that children will point in the street at my afro hair. I think it is because they aren’t exposed to many people of colour, so I look strange to her.

"Where I live you can be somewhere like the Milton ward, which is fairly diverse, and then go to Leigh, practically next door, and not see anyone of colour around.”

Elsa has also been a fervent supporter of her sex.

She's one of four women living and working in the Southend area who set out a new project, the Essex Girls Liberation Front (EGLF) to redefine the term.

As well as Elsa, they include author Syd Moore, producer Jo Farrugia, and actor and co-artistic director of Old Trunk Theatre Sarah Mayhew.

She says: “Some people think that the definition isn’t important, but something as negative and as stereotypical as that can have a huge impact on the opportunities that women from this borough can have.

“The ‘Essex girl’ reputation may be seen as a bit of a harmless fun, but when you actually pick it apart it can be really damaging. I don’t want my daughters, or any other woman, to be labelled with these damaging, regressive stereotypes.”

For the last few months, Elsa has bringing her two passions together through her residency at Firstsite, meeting with the community and working towards a new piece, which will be shown at the Colchester gallery later in the year as part of the Super Black exhibition.

"I'm interested in identity," she says finally, "especially the female identity, probably because I have two daughters myself and that's where Black Girl Essex started. I'm from London but I've been here for such a long time, I started to think am I an Essex girl? What does it mean to be an Essex girl? Being here in Colchester has added to those dialogues I've already had and I'm looking forward to seeing what work that produces."

Elsa James: Black Girl Essex runs until Sunday, September 22. Super Black runs from October 11 until January 12. For more information go to