Josèfa Ntjam on heroes, authenticity, and the power of infiltration

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Humanity & Technology, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The France-based artists creates fictional narratives between the past and present by drawing on mythical and historical references while also aligning with the Afrofuturism movement

Josèfa Ntjam’s images require care and attention. A consideration that directly opposes the fast-paced nature of the mediums she works with: modern technologies and the digital space. Ntjam interweaves the disciplines of photography, video, sculpture, performance and writing. Her works are infused with references to water and nature, which lead us through non-linear, multilayered conversations that address issues of family histories, colonialism, mythology and Black futurity.

Bacteria Flower, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.
Blurry memories, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Born in 1992 in Metz, France, Ntjam became interested in the exploration and reimagination of the past because of the fragmented recollection of her family history. “My paternal grandfather was killed by the French colonial army during the independence revolts in Cameroon [in 1955]. Someone told me he died near a church,” she explains. “But that’s all I know about him, so I started constructing a lot of mental landscapes and created lots of different stories in my mind.”

She began to make digital photomontages where her imagined compositions materialised and came alive. This process enabled her to examine and fill the voids of her family memories by creating her own narrative and adding a fresh perspective. It afforded Ntjam the opportunity to nurture the stories of her ancestors. “I want to create my own trace of my family,” she says.

A crossing of independences, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Ntjam is supported by Nicoletti, a contemporary art gallery in London, where her first solo show, running until 31 July 2021, opens tomorrow. Among the works displayed are her most recent digital photomontages. A further nine photomontages, inspired by the visuals she created for the exhibition Anticorps at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, will be exhibited at the Art-o-rama fair in Marseille in August. 

This series, titled Unknown Aquazone, blends nature and history in a somewhat utopian narrative. In one montage, Family Reunion, a bright orange creature and light-blue mollusc attract our gaze. On closer inspection, figures emerge from beneath the semi-transparent shapes. In one corner, you can make out a solemn family photograph. In the centre stands the late Cameroonian leader Ruben Um Nyobé, who wears a sash with the Cameroonian flag. His wife, Martha, stands to his side, and other family members surround them. Like Ntjam’s grandfather, Um Nyobé fought for the independence of Cameroon and the anti-colonial struggle and, in 1958, he too was assassinated by the French army. On the opposite corner, the lone figure of a relaxed, seated man dressed in casual western clothing subtly emerges. The fact that the artist positions him, her elder, slightly higher than Um Nyobé in the collage, is not accidental.

Family Reunion, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Ntjam finds the idea of heroes, specifically national heroes, problematic. Though many of these idolised figures are celebrated for doing good, they are imposed upon the collective memory of nation states at the expense of rendering countless others absent. These imported protocols establish a classification system. Featuring these figures in her photomontages allows her to question their value. For the artist, family members are her heroes. She unapologetically creates “a fictional story of my own life, where I can really place my family and celebrate them”, she says. By doing so, she interrogates the politics of historical documentation.

“I like challenging what we are made to believe.”

Informed by the academic work of the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop, and the pan-Africanist philosophy of Sun Ra, an American jazz musician and an influential pioneer of Afrofuturism, Ntjam believes in the importance of alternative methods of display in museums. Particularly ones that move beyond established narratives based on chronological and geopolitical arrangements – as per imperialist ideas of time and space. She suggests a new museography, based on aesthetic affinities and hybridity. “I like challenging what we are made to believe,” she says. Ntjam’s work aligns with the Black Speculative Arts Movement, also known as the second wave of Afrofuturism. It brings together artists and creative practitioners of the Black diaspora whose work “integrates African diasporic worldviews with science or technology and seeks to interpret, engage, design or alter reality for the reimagination of the past, the contested present, and to act as a catalyst for the future,” states the BSAM website. 

Émeutes globuleuse, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.
Entre Mes Mains, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Tradition and modernity

Water and the ocean are omnipresent in Ntjam’s photomontages. These too connect to her cultural past. From images of marine life, such as molluscs, octopuses, turtles, shells and the representation of water spirits, to her choice of printing materials. Plexiglas, resin and more recently latex are chosen for their transparency. “What I like about these printing materials is the depth they give to the photographs,” she explains. “You can see some parts of the picture pop up, like when you have 3D glasses on.” She adds: “Transparency is important for me; I like that the light can go across the works creating additional shapes and figures in the image.” 

Kankurang, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Beneath the watery surfaces, the artist embeds images of African wooden sculptures, entangling tradition and modernity. They symbolise the lives of Africans who died in the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade. “There are many boats which broke amidst the ocean, so there are a lot of archives and sculptures lost to the sea. Today they have their own life,” she says. The artist also prints her digital photomontages on fabric. The light textile moves freely in the gallery space, replicating the ebb and flow of the sea’s waves. 

“Mythology is important for futurism. You can imagine the world in many different ways with mythology. I love the fact that you can find connections between different myths from different parts of the world.”

In his thesis Flux and Reflux: African Diaspora (1968), the late Pierre Verger reminds us of the similarities and cultural semblances between peoples on each side of the Atlantic. “Since the beginning of the world, everything has blended together,” says Ntjam. “You can’t say that you specifically come from one place geographically because everyone and every population has been travelling since the beginning of humanity.”

Ntjam finds these connections particularly visible in what she calls “twin mythologies”. She refers to the figure of Mami Wata – a water deity, half-human half-mermaid, who is revered in many parts of Africa and its diasporas in the Latin American continent. Mythology, she believes, is the natural space that allows for the devising of collective futures.

“Mythology is important for futurism,” she says. “You can imagine the world in many different ways with mythology. I love the fact that you can find connections between different myths from different parts of the world.” For Ntjam, water and its fluidity is an analogy for the dissolution of established sociopolitical categories. These properties also represent the porosity of history and the inescapable continuous renewal we are bound to.

Moumiemone, 2021. © Josèfa Ntjam.

Ntjam’s main source of imagery comes from the internet. “I grew up with the internet and it was a revolution,” she recalls. “If you are looking for something you can just type it in, and you find a lot of information.” She finds a connection to the ocean here too. From its origin, the sea has been a metaphor for the worldwide web, a place we surf or navigate, filled with data flows. Though crucial to her work, Ntjam also warns about its dangers: “I think the internet is a big paradox,” she says. “It’s beautiful, but also a great danger for humanity. It holds a lot of information, but the algorithms decide what to make you look at.” It is ironic that its expansive nature is filtered by the choices and biases of those who control it, quietly moulding our worldviews at the expense of the freedom it came to provide.

Ntjam’s practice would not be complete without her poetry. In her cross-disciplinary performances, the artist combines art forms to create a holistic experience for the viewer. She establishes non-hierarchical dialogues between things that are seemingly exclusive of one another, facilitating an encounter where new possibilities can emerge. The symbols of water, mythology and African imagery continue to be the references that allow her to create spaces for emancipation and further critical reflection on the ideas of constructed memories, hybrid identities and plural possible futures.

Molecular Genealogies is on at Nicoletti Contemporary from Friday 18 June to Saturday 31 June 2021

Raquel Villar-Pérez

As the assistant curator at Photoworks, Raquel Villar-Pérez developed the festival through working on its special projects and collaborations. Previously working at the Tate Modern as an exhibitions assistant, her interests include post and decolonial women’s studies within contemporary art, focusing on the Global South as a political space. She has curated shows in London, Stockholm, Seoul and Malaga. A PhD candidate at Birkbeck’s School of Art and a member of the research group called Art and Identity Politics at the University of Murcia, Villar-Pérez is also a writer and researcher, contributing regularly to a number of international publications.