Josèfa Ntjam: “When the moon dreamed of the ocean”

FACT, until 9th April 2023, free

How we often take in film works in galleries is that you drop in at a random point, and will likely leave similarly arbitrarily. Tales don’t really have time to unfold, must reveal themselves in impressions. But I stick around for all of Josèfa Ntjam’s work, because I want more than just a moment with it. I want to witness its unfolding.

The centrepiece of When the moon dreamed of the ocean is the film Dislocation. It’s largely set in a cave – a habitat which can be murky and inhospitable, but in which Ntjam finds secret powers. She leads us on a journey through the caverns while dressed as Mami Wata, a spirit with dominion over water. Between the use of colour contrasts, the soundtrack of heavy distortions and the Afrofuturist-inspired narration, I find myself wanting to make this journey.

Still from Dislocation by Josefa Ntjam showing the surface of a body of water, fairly large but gentle waves

Water is a significant theme. It’s home to creatures with their own environmental adaptations and methods of communication. It’s essential for sustenance, feeding in particular the mushrooms which we consume and then, eventually, our decomposed bodies help grow for others. It flows constantly between generations. But the stories it tells are often of colonial and historical violence – waters traversed widely and troubled by lives lost. 

Its cycles and meanings can become clear in the cave in a way that hasn’t always been allowed. Dislocation is about how Ntjam’s family and ancestral history hasn’t been allowed to be fully her own. What keeps me with its story is the palpability and intelligence with which Ntjam’s anger and frustration at this is told. Ntjam isn’t just working with the fact that this has happened, but the consequences of this having happened. History as written by the victors has forgotten – or deliberately erased – names, music, spirits. Only fragments have survived for Ntjam and others to piece back together, if they can.

Still from Dislocation by Josefa Ntjam of a figure dressed in gold standing in a cave being enveloped by water or plankton, creating a shimmer around her.

Eventually we’re led out into the cave into a neon-saturated sky, where we’re suspended amongst shifting fragments of memories, as the distortion reaches its crescendo. This ending is the random point where I first joined Dislocation, and seeing the difference from the start I’m immediately curious how Ntjam gets from A to B. Having watched the whole thing, this sequence seems even more imaginative and fantastical, reflecting on the vastness of its challenge for both Ntjam and generations to come. For Ntjam doesn’t believe this cycle will ever be over – the water will keep nurturing histories for those who will come next. 

The rest of When the moon dreamed of the ocean is the physical environment around the film. Plankton and jellyfish, symbolic of those little-understood networks within the water, occupy the front porch of a cave through which we must walk to the film. I wish this had more room to unfold, reveal more about such communication. But then, what room does that leave for imagination? Ntjam calls for connection but also creativity, suggesting how goals might be achieved without specifying what the outcome looks like. And it’s this not-knowing that makes this beautiful and intriguing.

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