Firstsite, Colchester, is delighted to present Taking Up Space, the first major solo presentation by British artist Emily Mulenga. The exhibition features a selection of dynamic moving image works alongside animated GIFs and personalised emojis, showcasing Mulenga’s use of digital language to investigate identity in the Internet age.
Using video, digital technology and online spaces, Mulenga explores how these platforms promote ideas of self through the body, race and sexuality. She questions the perceived democratic nature of these channels, particularly in relation to how the black feminine experience is presented online.
Mulenga uses her own image within her work. She asserts ownership over the different ways she is viewed by positioning her filmed self or animated avatar in virtual environments. In Orange Bikini (2015) Mulenga’s avatar is shown performing in a sequence of fantasy scenes, including taking a selfie, singing, pole dancing, twerking and swimming with a dolphin. By embodying confrontational stereotypes of how the black female body can be shown, she affirms her own independence and power to celebrate beauty without the influence of a male gaze.
A brand-new work entitled 4 Survival 4 Pleasure (2017), a sequel to Orange Bikini, follows the avatar on a journey through a succession of luxurious digital landscapes, claiming for herself a sense of absolute agency. The piece touches on aspects of cyborg theory, as well as 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. Mulenga’s central theme is the desire for those who are marginalised not only to survive, but to find happiness and empowerment.
The MulengaMoji series appropriates the popular vocabulary of emojis and GIFs – small digital images that are used to express an idea or emotion. Mulenga embeds her own face into familiar icons such as crying, winking or angry emojis: alongside symbols drawn from her own work including afro, selfie, and twerking emojis. These playful representations are part of her search for new ways to construct and reclaim identities to exist online in the future.