When the pressure gets too much, Josèfa Ntjam visits her favourite donkey. He lives in a field that she often passes on her long walks near her home in Saint-Étienne, in east-central France. “I named him Alphonse after my grandfather,” she says. “I just have to see him and stroke him and it helps alleviate the stress.”

Ntjam has sought Alphonse’s soothing presence a lot lately. This year alone, the 32-year-old French artist has had multi-layered exhibitions at the Pernod Ricard Foundation in Paris and at Fotografiska in New York, an outpost of the Swedish museum usually dedicated to photography. In March, an entirely new body of sculptures was shown in Paris as part of LVMH’s Métiers d’Art series, in which she created a number of characters which blended African deities, creatures from the natural world and those from sci-fi imagination.

Vuitton’s artisans in Portugal and France — used to making tiny metal accessories for handbags and shoes — found themselves executing 70cm-high statues, 3D-printed in aluminium, and using extraordinary graduated coloured finishes newly developed for the task. “They were,” says Ntjam, “monumental in the context. But I like to push things, to experiment, to deliver what hasn’t been done before.”

Animal, alien and human-shaped sculptures float in a dimly lit gallery brightened up by a screen showing a colourful video
Installation view of ‘matter gone wild’ (2023) by Josèfa Ntjam, as seen at Fondation Pernod Ricard, Paris © ADAGP. Photo: Marc Domage

Now she has Venice to think about, where she was invited to exhibit under the aegis of the Berlin-based institution LAS, an organisation that, according to its director Bettina Kames, sits at the intersections of art, science and technology. “It is an art foundation about the future,” says Kames.

LAS has secured the courtyard of the city’s Accademia di Belle Arti as its location, alongside the services of the Venice-based architecture studio Una/Unless to create a shimmering blue (and apparently recyclable) prism-shaped pavilion within it. Inside, Ntjam’s presentation Swell of Spæc(i)es will include a film shown on a sweeping curved wall and suspended bio-resin sculptures — like huge translucent jellyfish — from which Ntjam’s spoken narrative will drift down. The artist is looking to the Dogon myth of Amma, who threw earth into the sky to make the stars, and the magical reality of plankton, which delivers oxygen to the world. She wants to connect the ocean and the cosmos.

Ntjam (pronounced UN-cham) was born in Metz to a mother from Alsace-Lorraine and a father from Cameroon, and grew up in the Paris suburbs. From the age of five, she studied the clarinet, later specialising in jazz at the Pantin conservatoire, before attending the experimental fine-arts school in Bourges from the age of 18. “I chose Bourges for its sound department. We’d have listening sessions of Boulez and Cage and Terry Riley,” she says when we meet at her LVMH installation on the Rue de Richelieu. “But it’s also a weird city with a history of alchemy. You can still feel that strange energy.”

A long golden sculpture resembling an ancient mask hangs in an industrial gallery space
Sculptures made by Josèfa Ntjam . . . 
Four thin tooth-like sculptures are attached to two of the metallic poles of a gradient structure featuring tones of pink, yellow and blue
 . . . during her artistic residency at LVMH Métiers d’Art, Paris © Piercarlo Quecchia (2)

Growing up playing video games and being read to by her mother helped to develop her aesthetic and her imagination. “I was most fascinated by the game Rayman: the main character was an eggplant with a head who grew up in a magical jungle,” she says. “And the books written and illustrated by Claude Ponti, where animals talked and children became lost, but eventually found their way home.” These influences — the colours, the transgressions, the fantasy, the mutating backdrops and beings — are still visible in her work.

Her art reflects her multiplicity of experience — a tumbling together of film, sculpture, sound, text and performance, which often entangles African mythologies and explorations into the natural world with science fiction and imagery of African resistance, to create strange time-defying narratives. Her grandfather was part of the brutal battle for Cameroon’s independence from France in the late 1950s (he died from his wounds after capture by colonial forces) and sometimes his ghostly face floats across Ntjam’s films.

Ntjam has looked to Afrofuturism — a speculative way to reinterpret and empower the Black experience, creating alternative universes where established (western) concepts of gender, race and time do not apply. She cites the importance of Octavia Butler, whose novel Kindred has characters slipping through time as they reveal the brutality of American slavery, and Drexcyia, a Detroit techno duo who dreamt up creatures who could live beneath the sea without breathing — a parable for survival in the most hostile of conditions. “But I don’t like the idea of it being a ‘movement’ or even an aesthetic,” she says of Afrofuturism. “To me, it is a research method, a way to create new links between available data and lack of history. It needs to be a collective practice — musicians, theoreticians. Not just you and your backpack of personal stuff.”

A black stone sculpture modelled after an Egyptian sarcophagus stands between two similar artworks in a dark environment
A sarcophagus-inspired sculpture by Josèfa Ntjam at LVMH Métiers d’Art . . . 
Two people wearing blue gloves hold a printed artwork showing dark gold anthropomorphic as well as egg-shaped statuettes against a creamy background
 . . . blending African mythologies, investigations into the natural world and a long-term fascination with science fiction © Piercarlo Quecchia (2)

While at Bourges, Ntjam started making the photomontages which continue to underpin her work. “I did a project called the Internet Museum, where I montaged images of west African statues and ones from ancient Egypt that could be found in the Quai Branly [museum] and the Louvre,” she says. Now she still draws all the imagery she uses from the internet, but models it in 3D and feeds it into her AI archive, to create a new world of characters that slip in and out of the real one.

“The AI isn’t neutral, because I make sure it isn’t,” she says. “I feed it with references, with my own material . . . When it comes to the stolen objects, giving them back to the AI to create another iteration feels like it’s freeing the sculpture from the box of the museum, from this heavy history of colonial occupation and theft.”

But she’s not laying down the rules. “I make my work. I open doors, and people can think what they want.”

April 20-November 24, las-art.foundation

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