Artist interview: Emily Mulenga
19th October 2017
Taking Up Space at Firstsite, Colchester, is Emily Mulenga’s first major solo presentation. 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. Exhibition curator Harriet Cooper talks to the artist about her ideas and inspirations.
Harriet Cooper: What are the main ideas you are trying to communicate in your work?
Emily Mulenga: I think how the internet and technology are so intertwined in our expression of self, especially for my generation and those younger who have grown up with the internet. Also, ideas of potential liberation for marginalised bodies and how we can explore possible futures through technology.
HC: How do you think our expression of self and control over our own identity has changed in the digital/Internet age?
EM: We now have an easy way to display and control our public image and can be very selective on the way we choose to portray ourselves. On one end of the scale we have ‘oversharing’, where internet users go into detail on even the most unpleasant aspects of their life. On the other end we have users whose social media feeds look like they live in a 24/7 paradise. Then there are those who chose to become a new persona entirely.
HC: You use yourself or your own image and avatar to explore scenarios in your work. How did this come about?
EM: I have always found that it’s just the way I work to use my own image as a point of reference. When I began investigating digital avatars this became a natural extension of that. I find it to be the easiest way for me to explore my ideas.
HC: At Firstsite we’ve been really excited to debut your new work, ‘4 Survival, 4 Pleasure’ (2017). Can you say a little about this work and the process of making it?
EM: The piece is a direct sequel to my 2015 work ‘Orange Bikini’. We again see my avatar move through a series of virtual sequences, doing everything completely for her own happiness. I felt like the time was right to revisit the themes and making it got me out of a long creative slump.
HC: Some of the scenes and sequences your avatar performs in these works could be considered quite sexualised – twerking, pole dancing, etc. How does this relate to your experience of female representation today?
EM: I think it’s important to reject ideas that women must behave in a certain way in order to gain respect. Our society incessantly sexualises women and girls, but when a woman wants to express her own sexuality on her own terms, suddenly it’s seen as a problem. Black women especially can be stereotyped by others as hypersexual, but it is important to not let the politics of respectability censor your expression or desires.
HC: I’m sure lots of our visitors will be intrigued to know how you actually make your video works.
EM: I use a software called IMVU, which is a virtual chat room. Users can create and dress their avatar and shop for more looks, furniture and environments. I record the screen and edit the footage in Final Cut Pro X. I also use found footage and green screen technology. My video ‘Taking Up Space’ was created with help from the animation company Matinai.
HC: We’ve really been enjoying hearing the soundtracks in the exhibition echo through the galleries at Firstsite – where do these particular compilations come from?
EM: They’re just some of the tracks that have inspired me the most over the years and provoke quite strong emotions in me. Some of it is from old video games that I feel particularly nostalgic about. For the video ‘Taking Up Space’ I produced the soundtrack myself.
HC: Are there any artist whose work you find particularly interesting when thinking about your own practice?
EM: I like Jacolby Satterwhite’s work. I haven’t known of him for very long but I think his use of new media and technology, green screen and performance as a queer black artist is super interesting.
HC: Except for having a well-earned rest, what are you working on next?
EM: I’m hoping to get a sticker pack of my MulengaMojis up and running for use on iMessage. Beyond that, I want to develop my technical skills and begin a new body of research that I’ve yet to pin down!
Emily Mulenga ‘Taking Up Space’ continues until Sunday 5 November