Artist Josèfa Ntjam performs at Mishkin Gallery


Mishkin Gallery, 2022

Mia Euceda, Arts & Culture Editor

Saint-Étienne-based artist and writer Josèfa Ntjam presented a commissioned multimedia performance titled “Holy Water, in discussion with Mami Wata” at the Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College on Nov. 3.

The live performance is part of the gallery’s exhibition “Who Speaks for the Oceans?” curated by art director Alaina Claire Feldman and professor of biology and environmental sciences David Gruber. The exhibition challenges visitors to rethink their notions of marine life.

“Holy Water, in discussion with Mami Wata” is inspired by the African mythologies of Mami Wata, a half fish, half human water spirit representing fertility and wealth.

The performance ran for approximately 40 minutes. It commenced with Ntjam facing towards a projected image of a face with multiple layers, with each layer unraveling throughout the piece.

“I am not crazy. I’m just you and me,” Ntjam said during the performance.

Her show focused on breaking down barriers that encourage separate identities. It was difficult for the audience to determine if the face on the screen was a person, a sculpture or an aquatic creature.

“Josèfa sees the inability to simply classify Mami Wata as a liberatory convention, moving away from fixed categorizations like race and gender,” Feldman said in an interview with The Ticker. “We don’t have to be just this or that–we can be both, we can be all, and we can be in-between.”

 The screen also projected a neon video of a purple hurricane slowly glitching and turning into different bright colors. At one point, the screen read “I remember Coltrane, Shabazz, Sun Ra my mother,” among other figures.

The visuals were accompanied by a minimal synth soundtrack and chanting. Ntjam interjected at times with spoken word or her clarinet playing.

She closed the performance by repeating the phrase “If you put the stone in your eyes, you can see the piddock shells of the magical highness, I know you can perceive the differences of your dancing waves and dusty shapes of water,” possibly referencing Mami Wata.

“I hope people leave enchanted by Josèfa’s elaborate and poetic performance. She collapses music, video, history, philosophy and narrative to draw us deeper into the world of Mami Wata,” Feldman said.

The performance left some students stunned. Ntjam was met with two rounds of applause.

“It felt so emotionally entrenched. It was a very visceral feeling. Also, like really interesting because the visuals were like old to me, but then it was very much futuristic kind of, the way the sound worked,” Kid Guzman, a fine arts major at Parsons said in an interview with The Ticker.

Ntjam works with sculpture, photomontage, film and sound to question narratives on identity. She heavily references Mami Wata and other African mythologies in her work. Her appearance at the Mishkin Gallery also marks her first performance in New York City.

The performance was supported by Etant donnés Contemporary Art, a program of Villa Albertine and the FACE Foundation, in partnership with the French Embassy in the United States, with support from the French Ministry of Culture, among others.

Ntjam is a member of the Paris-based art and research collective Black(s) to the Future. The collective describes itself as an “Afrofuturistic” group of artists, researchers and activists using different mediums to depict an inclusive and sustainable world.

Her work “Underground Resistance — Living Memories,” is currently on display at the Soho Photography Quarter in London and depicts Mami Wata along with other water deities.

More of Ntjam’s work is currently featured in the exhibition “Les Portes du possible. Art & science-fiction” at the Centre Pompidou, Metz in France from Nov. 5 to April 10. She has an upcoming solo exhibition at the FACT Liverpool gallery in the spring.

The Mishkin Gallery will be hosting other events from artists contributing to the “Who Speaks for the Oceans?” exhibition. This includes a virtual artist’s talk titled “Ant Farm’s Dolphin Embassy” on Nov. 17 and a participant-led performance titled “Alvin Lucier’s Vespers” on Dec. 1.