Bethlem Friday Focus – Chameleon ability

As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.


This week artist Esther Maxwell-Orumbie shares her photographic essay Chameleon ability and talks to us about standing out and bending in.


‘To adapt or not to adapt, blending in is the question‘

Traveling around London in my African outfit doing a photo shoot.  We explored the effectiveness of my being like a chameleon as a black person.  The tunic I wore traveling around London had an inconspicuous chameleon on the front to depict my ability to sometimes blend into my environment in order not to be seen.  On the back of the outfit is a map of Africa styled like an afro with a face, this was to show my pride in my African heritage.

Outside the Black Cultural Archives and in Brixton market, a vanguard for black identity in the UK, I felt it easy to blend in and be a part of the multi-cultured, multicoloured vibrant Brixton settings.  Traveling from Victoria train station to Hyde Park Corner, I went past three office workers, men dressed in white shirts and black trousers, what a contrast to my colourful outfit.  My chameleon tunic kept me from blending in, believe it or not, to what I felt was their environment.  Could I remove my attire there to blend in? – no.  At the Victoria and Albert museum I found myself on the wrong floor, I did not blend in – vibrant colour versus plain marble.

There are times I want to be conspicuous and stand out.  That’s when I’m wanting to show the world around me who I am, in which case I will choose very colourful African outfits with headgear and jewellery to match.  This is the time I don’t want to hide, but to shout from the roof tops, “hey guys I’m from Africa and I love my heritage, come join me and share what I have to offer”.  I am using clothing to trick myself into thinking I have an actual choice.

I remember as a young girl leaving boarding school in Britain and going to America for the first time.  It was a total culture shock.  America was totally different from what I had ever experienced.  The culture was so, so different.  I felt completely alienated and disconnected from my environment and others.  To put it mildly as a young black woman I did not like America.  I did not want to stay; I wanted to run and find a safe place to be.  It was extremely difficult to adapt to my new found reality, this new country.

I had not yet learned to blend in, to be invisible.  I finally went back home to Freetown, Sierra Leone.  At last back where I belonged, happy and content, not needing to be invisible, feeling that the whole country was different versions of me, never feeling like the ‘other ‘.

One thing I’ve learned, you have to persevere and struggle through.  This is life, and most things of worth do not come easy.  As I think of myself acting like a chameleon when I go to other countries and experience other cultures, sometimes I hide and camouflage myself.  And sometimes I’m bright and very conspicuous, but most of all I just want to be at peace with myself, my environment and of course other people.

Esther Maxwell Orumbie





Chameleon ability
Digital photographs, 2017

Photography by Beth Elliott

Chameleon ability is centered around a tunic Esther made from African textiles embroidered with an image of a chameleon, an animal that represents her strategy for adapting to new cultures and countries, as Esther says “I adjust and adapt but I retain my culture, I am who I am – I don’t need your approval.” Esther has produced a series of photographs of herself wearing the tunic in a set of diverse locations across London she has chosen that resonate with her and where her intervention purposefully blends in or stands out. The work was created for the exhibition It’s how well you bounce at Bethlem Gallery in 2017.

Esther’s work explores ideas of displacement and mental health, how we adapt culturally and socially to new countries and the impact of such change on ourselves. The cultures of the world influence her, however her foundations are strongly influenced by the African diaspora which open the senses and which ignite the memories of her childhood.