Marie Bechetoille: Zombies now play a major role in Western fictions, particularly in film and television series, but also in the visual arts. Artists use them to represent desires for vengeance and violence, but also possibilities of resilience and reparation. What does this return of the zombie mean for you? What role does the imaginary of the ‘undead’ occupy in your practice?
Josèfa Ntjam: Last night I started watching the film Zombi Child by Bertrand Bonello. I love the way it’s shot, but it should really be seen in a cinema and not on a computer! I also saw Atlantique by Mati Diop: the zombies come to say goodbye to the people they loved more than to seek vengeance. They are ‘wandering souls’ since their death did not take place correctly. I’ve often used in my work the concept of ‘boatlessness’, which comes from ancient Egypt, whereby you are doomed to immobility. The fact that you don’t have a boat prevents you from crossing the Styx in the proper manner, and so you are doomed to wander above the river of death and haunt others. Within the ‘boatless’ arborescence that I constituted, I hung Sun Ra’s Spaceship, which picks up wandering souls to take them to another planet in order to experience their death fully. An image of one of my videos could echo that. We can see the encounter between the sixteenth-century painting Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx by Joachim Patinir and a futurist spaceship. It’s an extract from my project Liqueurs de sable [Liqueurs of Sand], a reading performed about a journey over water and its migratory pathways.
MB: Zombified people are excluded from the world of the living by being shunned from society. Following this symbolic death, they are considered subordinates and are dominated, rendered invisible, and exploited . . .
JN: The fact of ostracizing from society and considering some individuals as zombies still exists. There are lots of zombies, even now, in Paris. People who use crack are excluded from society. They live outside of their body; they’re disconnected. I loved the book Ceux qui sortent la nuit [Those Who Come Out at Night] by Cameroonian author Mutt-Lon, based on the community of exwusus, considered to be witches, who leave their bodies by night. They commit misdeeds in the villages, kill people or influence certain important decisions such as sharing territory or marriages, etc. The story is that of a man recounting how his sister died by practising astral travel, which her grandmother had taught her. There is this idea that if your soul leaves your body for too long, it might no longer return to it and it will start to necrotize . . .
MB: In 2018, the expression ‘the zombies of the metro’ was used in the press1 to talk about people consuming crack in the Parisian metro. The pejorative use of this term to stigmatise marginalised people raised controversy.
JN: It is true that the zombie has a negative connotation associated with it. From a philosophical point of view, it nevertheless leads to other lines of thinking. For me, these people are between life and non-life, they are living dead because of their situation.
MB: In your texts, installations, sculptures, videos, and performances, you work with collages and superpositions. The accumulation of various historic and iconographic strata plays on systems of representation. I’m mainly thinking of your use of allegories to evoke other space-times. For instance, the mermaid Mami Wata recurs in your works as an allegory of power and colonial violence.
JN: Allegories are exciting because they multiply and transform themselves. I do a lot of etymological and semiotic research. It enables me to compare symbolisms and create important hybrid figures for the narrative. The way I write and speak in my films sometimes traverses incantatory diction, akin to declamation or manifesto. Beyond allegory, the form of the voice also gives a different body to the texts that you relate. And that is amusing, when thinking of zombies, given that they don’t speak but express themselves in groans. If the zombie existed and we recorded the sounds it emits, I wonder what that material would be like, the layers of sound produced with slow motion or acceleration effects added . . .
MB: In your recent film Mélas de Saturne, the name of the character is Persona, used in its multiplicity of meanings, evoking the moment when Ulysses declares cunningly ‘I am No one’ in The Odyssey, but also its etymology related to funerary masks. What importance do you give to words and their histories?
JN: The Latin term persona is multiple, as is the Greek term mélas, the black matter of melancholy from which the word ‘melanin’ derives. I find this discursive and etymological pathway of words interesting within my research. By focusing on these words persona and mélas I define a context prior to writing the text. Persona, incidentally, is also a piece of Firefox software. I like to see how words traverse temporalities and how they are used, from their mythological origins to their digital fate.
MB: The notion of isolation is omnipresent in this project Mélas de Saturne, as is the power of connections with the abysses, inverted and infinite worlds . . .
JN: When you are isolated, you are in an in-between; you are at once in the world and beside it, but you are not necessarily connected. My character Persona is isolated, due to being hyperconnected and this loses her in the multi-worlds of the internets. She will always be searching for her origins but they are impossible to find because her IP address is encrypted and constantly changing. Mélas de Saturne talks about the melancholy of this isolation as creative forces, like a genuine current of thought and not the melancholy of drama or the suicidal poet. The ocean depths and obscure places are powerful sites for gathering and creation that enable dissidence to be created even before it comes to light and is blocked at the moment it arrives. Zombies did not arrive immediately on earth, before that they were in a place whose ins and outs we are unfamiliar with. However, a very dark energy is connected to this place. They organise there and when they emerge from it, they do so all together. The zombie is never alone.
MB: That’s right, even if it is rejected by society, the zombie finds other zombies. And as a group, they can create a counterpower and revolt collectively, avenging people who have excluded them.
JN: In Mati Diop’s film Atlantique, I perceived it differently. When they come back to earth, the zombies come back to where their loved ones are. It’s the first place they go to. Even in Zombi Child, there is this zombie that remembers the woman he still loves and returns to see her. Zombies don’t forget: they’re a form of memory.
MB: History is written subjectively and continually, with forgotten elements, holes, ellipses, that return to haunt it. Through your series of photomontages, Le Musée des inter-net-s, you highlight the mechanisms of construction of historical narratives by evoking the historian, anthropologist, and Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop who, in his book, Nations Nègres et Cultures published in 1954, reasserted the Sub-Saharan origins of the Egyptian civilisation.
JN: Cheikh Anta Diop is an important figure. When he handed in his thesis at the Sorbonne, it was immediately refused and it caused an academic outcry. It seemed impossible that a certain Egyptian Empire could be black. If you look at a map, Nubia and Sub-Saharan African are nevertheless side by side. It’s like saying that North Africa doesn’t belong to the African continent . . . A lot of ideas must be called into question in the book and it is inherent to historical study that it be reworked with new information. But politically this historical perspective was such a major contribution. Notably at the time of Harlem Renaissance, the movement of renewal of the Afro-American culture in the interwar period. Blackness has become a symbol used later by the Francophone thinkers of negritude: Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Léon-Gontran Damas, etc. I created an iconography entitled People in Egypt with all of the artists who referred to Egypt, many of whom came from the African diaspora: Mohamed Ali, Malcolm X, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Beyoncé, or Barack Obama who I caused to appear on a Tutankhamun head. I find that this comparison has incredible power and presents a chapter of what happened before the slave trade. There really was a historical gap for this community and for me the link is the Atlantic. And through the Atlantic, we return to the many living dead present in the ocean. This history resurfaces from the ocean depths. From Mami Wata, the mermaid of the West African coastline to Drexciya, a techno group from Detroit in the 1990s, there exists an entire mythology of children born to female slaves, thrown overboard during the Atlantic crossings under the slave trade. These half-human, half-fish Afro-descendants live on thanks to the witches of the Atlantis School, the Drexciyan empire. They were born out of death . . .
MB: Listening to you, I’m thinking of contemporary authors like Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fatou Diome, or Léonora Miano who have written powerful texts on the subject of immigration, its illusions and tragedies.
JN: In 2018, I was lucky enough to see the performance of the text Révélation, the first chapter of the text Red in Blue Trilogy by Léonora Miano, by Satochi Nyagi at the Théâtre de la Colline in Paris. The text tells the story of these souls who wander about the universe and decide not to be born, to avoid becoming new-borns because it is chaos on earth. The living dead is reversed: here we have the child that is not yet alive.
MB: It is true that we often pose the question of death after life, but less often life before birth! It is disturbing to consider marginality through the image of a new-born, with this duality of being at once outside and inside . . .
JN: Among the important thinkers for me, there is also Aimé Césaire. He wrote a series of texts for other authors, notably Cérémonie vaudou pour Saint-John Perse. I’ll read an excerpt for you:
‘the one for whom the burseras of the sierra sweating blood and water and more blood than water and peeling never cease twisting their arms grotesques in their parade of the damned
the one who contemplates each day the first genetic letter that it is superfluous to name to the point of perfect reddening with the surpluses of strength to be gathered from the historical void the seeker of lost springheads the disentangler of ropy lava
the one who calculates the low water mark of anger in the workable and tutelary earth
the one who encounters the beat and the off-beat wheel of blood moaning a thousand times more than norias on the Orontes . . .’2
MB: When you perform within your installations, you are at once author, actress, and director by activating the superposition of sounds and your voice, live. What interests you about these to-and-fros between character and narrator?
JN: I often wonder this myself. I haven’t resolved this site of enunciation. I’m the one who’s on stage, yet the dissolution of pronouns in the texts creates ambiguity. You don’t know if it’s me or the character speaking. I read my text and it’s my voice that can be heard in institutional spaces, through the duplicity of the characters. Recently, at the Palais de Tokyo for the project Aquatic Invasion,3 I was accompanied on the sound and video, but not on the performance of the text, which I continue to work on. I can be entirely myself through orality, performance, and writing, more than through objects. I haven’t let get of the text because the point of incarnation takes place through orality and I need to proactively affirm the words.
MB: Do you prefer to work collectively or alone?
JN: I have always worked in a group dynamic, especially with video. With artist and curator friends, we created a collective Black(s) to the future,4 a tentacular site of exchanges and research based on common references. Writing is an exercise in which you produce by confronting yourself with others, by reusing stylistic devices that you have read in certain other people’s writing and deforming them . . .
MB: There is the presence of other voices through one’s own voice. Yes, it’s impossible to avoid citation because we are filled with everything that we absorb, traverse, or inherit . . . That reminds me of a wonderful text by Clara Schulmann entitled Zizanies, in which she talks about women’s words – scientists, researchers, journalists, bloggers, actors – who have been important to her in both her personal life and her writing practice. She writes in the introduction: ‘Around these “moments”, I gather an imaginary community of female characters, alive or dead, real or fictional who, in some way, speak through these pages.’5
JN: One of my sculptures, L’arche de résilience, evokes this with a body that has become monstruous through an accumulation of disappointments. It is necessary to accept the monstrosity of body and mind to attain some kind of resilience. We all have a degree of monstrosity in us. We are all a bit zombie. The term is so pejorative that we don’t assimilate it to ourselves and that allows us to think that it is still the Other. For me, the zombie is also the figure of the alien and the foreigner that is systematically set aside, as with the mountain of crack or in the migrant camps – spaces where people live half-lives. Conventional morality makes us think that it is always other people.
MB: There is an invisibilisation of all of these dead people and the living who are surviving. It’s convenient for us not to see or talk about them, and therefore not to act. We are indeed all a bit zombie.
JN: My work Unknown Aquazone talks about these non-aquatic zones and their historical potential. You have to look closely, because you can discover lots of clues in the work. Out of seventy layers, several historic figures who died for Cameroon’s independence are present: Ruben Um Nyobè, Marthe Ekemeyong Moumié and other figures of revolt emerge . . .
MB: You combine political history with colourful plant forms. Through this ‘excess’, you affirm an eclecticism of references and avoid frontality.
JN: When you go to the antique dealer’s, you come across a million objects and histories; you have to go back several times. I love the rigour of research for untangling and understanding. By superposing images, characters, and mythologies, I choose to reappropriate, to avoid didactic discourse. If I must talk about the human body, I prefer to use the monstruous or the plant world and for political questions, evoke people who have a very specific way of thinking and include them. When I present short courses or workshops, I provide image banks, featuring important symbols. I ask what stories these tell and I share my own in turn. The interpretation is not set in stone. The dead still have a lot more to tell us!
- Geoffroy Tomasovitch and Jila Varoquier, ‘Quand les fumeurs de crack squattent des stations de métro parisiennes’, Le Parisien, 19 January 2018 [DOI: www.leparisien.fr/faits-divers/paris-quand-les-fumeurs-de-crack-squattent-des-stations-de-metro-18-01-2018-7509147.php]
- Aimé Césaire, trans. by Clayton Eshleman and A. James Arnold, The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire: Bilingual Edition (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), 810 ff.
- Clara Schulmann, Zizanies (Paris: Paraguay Press, ‘Essais’ Coll. 2020), 13.