Reshaping mythologies and cultural constellations: a conversation with Josèfa Ntjam
On September 9th, artist Josèfa Ntjam will present her new performance entitled Watery Thoughts inside the archeological area of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, as part of the program Hidden Histories 2021. Drawing upon Ntjam’s long-standing research into the symbolic potential of water, the work will investigate the mythological, political and artistic elements associated with the aquatic imaginary, in dialogue with the iconography of mosaics and statues with marine themes present in the collection of the National Roman Museum, so to evoke the original use of the thermal baths.
The following conversation took place in early July, during the artist’s first visit to Rome. The sequence of questions and answers retraces the pivotal lines that guide Ntjam’s interests and artistic practice, which is based on the creation of complex narratives through collages of sounds, images, words and stories. By hybridizing history and mythology, personal and collective memories, the artist’s performances and installations generate visionary worlds, which dismantle the concept of cultural authenticity and open spaces of imaginative speculation, in order to deconstruct the grand narratives that structure hegemonic discourses on origin, identity and race.
Hidden Histories is a site-specific public program, consisting of performances, workshops, talks and urban explorations, meant to reflect on the cultural and historical heritage of Rome from a decolonial perspective. Conceived and curated by LOCALES, a curatorial platform founded in Rome by Sara Alberani and Valerio Del Baglivo, the project presents this year its second edition, running from June to beginning of October and including interventions by Stalker, bankleer, Josèfa Ntjam, Leone Contini, Daniela Ortiz and Adila Bennedjaï-Zou. As the program unfolds, a series of interviews conducted by Marta Federici with the artists participating in HH 2021 will explore the issues addressed by the artistic interventions, in order to provide a broader context for each.
Marta Federici: Your artistic practice consists in creating complex narratives that describe visionary worlds and societies. Acting on both personal and collective memory, these narratives are intended to question history as it is told by Western hegemonic culture. In doing so, you undermine the very notion of historical documentation and authenticity. Could you tell us more about this concept and how facts and fiction interact in your work?
Josèfa Ntjam: In my work, I question both family stories and political history, because for me there is a big lack of both. “History” or “story”, might sound almost like the same word, but their meanings are very different: on one side there is capital-H History, while on the other, there are (hi)stories with a small h. The main or institutional history, the one with the big H, often shows a lack of memories and archives. Personally, I also do lack some memories in my own family history. My father comes from Cameroon, while my mother is half German and half French; in the past years, I tried to find leads and histories about my family’s resistance in Cameroon, about the resistance movement risen by my grandfather in the UPC party [NdR The Union of the Peoples of Cameroon]. My family struggled against colonial power, and my grandfather was killed, but I don’t know these facts to the core. This story has always been like a blurry memory, I just keep some symbols of it: I know that he died close to a church and that he was killed by the French army. It felt important to revisit these events, yet I knew I didn’t have the truth. Perhaps this is where the notion of authenticity places itself in my work, that is, the reason why I don’t really trust authenticity. Sometimes it can be extremely dangerous to speak about authenticity because people happen to have in mind really hardened, straight ideas about what is authentic and what is not. Moreover, I come from a mixed culture, and this is the second reason why I question authenticity. People have been traveling since the dawn of humanity, therefore when someone happens to mention something like “purely authentic culture” they end up providing a very superficial statement, which I consider close to any nationalist thought. I prefer a process of thought that mixes everything up, in a constant, relentless movement of stories and history. Because culture is not something fixed, it is always moving. This also explains why I use a lot of symbols connected to water: because water is in constant motion.
As you just mentioned, water symbols and images of marine life are in fact omnipresent in your works and narratives. The metaphorical potential of water is rich: it connects itself to various topics, from migration to the ecological crisis and so on. How did you come to approach this universe of meanings? How do you interpret it and what are your main sources?
As you say, water is connected to many aspects: science, politics, migration, slavery, and a lot of other socio-political sides of our world. It is very important for me to work with water, because of its physical and metaphorical fluidity. Water is first of all, a symbol of fluidity.
An important reference for me has been the aquatic legend created by a techno group from Detroit, called Drexciya. They developed a vast mythology around the people who died in the Ocean during the slavery trade, specifically the unborn children of pregnant women who died crossing the Atlantic. It is an alternative story of Atlantis; we could refer to it as the story of Black Atlantis. In Cameroon as well as the entire West Coast of Africa, there are also a lot of mythological figures connected to water and to the sea. They are a sort of water spirits, such as Mami Wata, who is half mermaid and half monster. I really like this figure, because I think that ultimately everyone has a monstrous part in themselves.
Three years ago, I created a performance called Hilolombi, which started with a human being discovering a planet made of water. As humans came into contact with the planet’s atmosphere, their bodies would transform into shapes of water, like drops. I asked myself, what would happen if people wanted to keep the memory of such a fluid planet? A nation would have to take the form of a river… as if all the drops joined together forming the memory of such a place. The human body doesn’t belong to its physicality. This is yet another important aspect for me—not placing the human body and the human being at the center of my practice.
You’ve just used the word “mythology”, which I think is really interesting. I’d say that we can add it as a third reference next to the previous terms you already focused on—story and history. How do you interpret and approach mythology? I couldn’t help but notice that many mythological figures are also present in the space where you will present your performance in Rome, the Baths of Diocletian.
I love mythology because it is like a whisper. It’s part of oral history, it is not fixed, and therefore it’s very different from stories and histories found in books. We can’t be sure about every single detail in mythology because mythology itself keeps shifting into many different versions. This reconnects to what I said earlier, we too can continue to add parts of the story inside mythology. Another interesting fact is the possibility to find commonalities of the same mythology in different places and cultures, under different names. For example, in Italy there are a lot of mythological stories around the figure of the mermaid; in Africa, the mermaid is called Mami Wata; in Haiti, you will find another name for the same creature, and so on. Moreover, I’d say that mythology crosses all kinds of temporalities, it can be past, present, as well as future. You can also find a lot of mythology in technology. Within mythologies, we can—and must—connect the dots because these kinds of narrations don’t draw a linear history but rather a constellation. I think that we need to think this way in order to continue to create and reason about the political sides of our work and world.
These days you visited the location for the first time. What are your first impressions? Do you already have an idea of what you are going to work on for your new performance? Also, how does it feel to intervene in a place like this?
Well, I know that I am confronting myself with a great canon of art history and culture. Sometimes it feels a bit strange to interact with all that. While visiting the museum, I tried to read some of the captions and I realized that they are not always very precise, giving me space for further interpretations, like in mythology! I like the fact that I can interpret things—but I can’t go too far here, because this is history in the end. I think I must find my place in this huge architecture and it’s not easy, because it is not like a contemporary art museum, a white cube. In this context, I must think in a different way, in relation to the place.
I already took a lot of photos of sculptures and mosaics. The place is loaded with history, stories, and memories. I’m trying to connect and process everything. This morning I thought about how I’d like to create digital sculptures, taking inspiration from what I could see in the museum, and include them as unknown items inside its collection. I also want to search for more images of the ancient baths with water, paintings, mosaics, or anything else, because I’d like to get an idea of how the site looked originally. Today it’s hard to imagine this place filled with water since now it’s completely empty and dry. I will probably work with sound, trying to recall water and fill up the place in an evocative way. This is all I can say for the moment.
Some of your past works have already addressed the topic of museography and its canons. I am thinking of Musées Des Inter-net-s and Archéologie-s Fictive-s D’Histoire-s Connecté-e-s. In that case too you confronted yourself with large museum collections and you created fake archeological finds. What was the intention in that case?
The Musées Des Inter-nets is a project that takes inspiration from the research of Cheikh Anta Diop, an Egyptologist and Senegalese historian. In the middle of the XX century, he wrote an important essay, Nations Nègres et Cultures, in which he stated that there had been a black pharaoh dynasty during ancient Egypt. His theory was groundbreaking, but it was largely opposed within the university La Sorbonne, in France, because it disagreed with what was known until then. All ancient Egyptians and Pharaohs were considered to be white (this is how they are portrayed in school books!), but the reality is that Nubia is part of the African continent and, again, it’s just logical to connect the dots. In Western culture, ancient Egypt is perceived as part of Western identity and heritage, and not as part of the African continent. It is the same when you go to museums in Paris, for example to the Louvre: there is no connection between the Louvre and the Quai Branly, which is a museum dedicated to non-European civilizations. You can see the ancient Egyptian collection in one place and the African collection in the other place. Thus, I asked myself, why are there two places for a history that we need and must connect. This was the beginning of my project. I tried to collect a lot of pictures from the Louvre and the Quai Branly and I decided to try and put those pictures together, to bridge the history gap through photomontage. I created a series of hybrid sculptures matching West African and ancient Egyptian finds, and I called them the Musées Des Inter-nets because I didn’t want to have a real place for a fictional collection. Afterward, I went to Senegal and worked with a wood sculptor to produce actual statues, based on the photomontages I had done. It was fun to produce them and create a fake museum based on Cheikh Anta Diop’s essay. The result was the installation Archéologie-s Fictive-s D’Histoire-s Connecté-e-s. I also created a fake archeological history, imagining that we had found those sculptures in the territory between Senegal and ancient Nubia, as if they were evidence of the link between these two parts of the continent.
My last question is about Afrofuturism, a reference often associated with your performances and work. I know that you have developed a specific approach to this topic, and I was curious to know more about your point of view.
Actually, I don’t use this definition anymore because for me it arises from a complex combination of words: I don’t really know what “afro” is and I don’t know what “futurism” is either. At the moment, Afrofuturism feels like a blurry concept from my point of view. In France, I am part of a collective, Blacks to the Future, together with my friend Mawena and others, and we have deconstructed the word Afrofuturism. We think that if you want to speak about Afrofuturism you have to do it as a practice—a speculative practice or research. For us, it basically represents an open question: we are always connecting new dots around it, asking ourselves what Afrofuturism is or is not. We prefer to use the term “futurible”, which comes from the combination of the words “future” and “possible”, thus meaning possible futures. We no longer use the term Afrofuturism also because in the last decade it has become an overused brand, for culture, for fashion, for music. The definition was coined by Mark Dery at the beginning of the ‘90s. When people talk about Afrofuturism they always think of Sun Ra, but the fact is that he actually never used this word. Together with his band Arkestra, San Ra created a huge mythology, partly connected to ancient Egypt, but he never named this mythology Afrofuturism, and this is why I don’t really know what Afrofuturism is—it is not a movement nor a concept. Two years ago, when I decided that I didn’t want to use this definition anymore, I started to imagine, look for and even create new words, as I said before. This is why I need poetry; this is the reason why I write. If Afrofuturism exists, it doesn’t have a definition, every day we must produce a new definition, a new concept, because it is constantly transforming itself and you can’t just fix and trap it in a place.