From Josèfa Ntjam to Daniel Arsham, different natures at Fotografiska New York

There is a long red brick building stretching along Stadsgården, the quay on Stockholm’s Baltic coast, dating back to 1906. Initially a customs house, Fotografiska was born in 2010 as a multi-purpose museum that, whilst ever loyal to its photographic roots, recognises the image as an expanded medium for social, political and artistic reflection. Almost a decade later, it opened its first space outside Europe – in an even older historic building from the nineteenth century, but located in the heart of Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Empire State Building. This is where the solo exhibitions Futuristic Ancestry: Warping Matter and Space-time(s) by Josèfa Ntjam, PHASES by Daniel Arsham and the group show Human / Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World are now on display.

The tour from the top to the first floor starts with the young French artist’s first US solo show. This year alone, besides her North American debut, Josèfa Ntjam has already shown her work in Paris, as part of the renowned LVMH Métiers d’Art, with une cosmogonie d’océans, and now at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, as part of the official parallel programme of the 60th Biennale di Venezia, with swell of spæc(i)es. In keeping with transfeminist efforts that recognise sci-fi as a possible tool for intra- and interspecies freedom and justice, her cross-disciplinary work encourages us to uncover fantastic landscapes and characters – some from the past; some from the future; perhaps some already with us. Whether inspired by the images of Mami Uata – an aquatic deity revered in different cultures throughout West, Central and Southern Africa and by diasporic peoples in the Caribbean and the Americas – or by historical figures from the Cameroonian and Nigerian independence struggles, the artist achieves a metaphysical cosmos connecting the realms of imagination, history and biology as if they were one world. And, indeed, they are.

The photographic medium is used as an excuse for an exhibition bringing together outlandish montages, grand panels, floating sculptures and immersive video installations. The setting nods to a certain Y2K aesthetic, nowadays nostalgic and somewhat amateurish in appearance, but which also draws on the vibrant and infinite flow of possibilities ushered in by the technological boom at the start of the millennium. Featuring the same shimmering colours and crude visual effects, Ntjam recaptures references from one – many, in fact – past to redesign a flawed future – in which there is still anger, outrage and reasons to resist – but ruled by new identities and symbioses. The routes to such a revolution are also laid out by the artist, like someone who bends time-space to unveil a secret from beyond: for insubordination, we recommend 3 Orangelicot fruits, 20 grams of dried turmeric, 6 Patienle leaves, 10 grams of Sceau d’Antela roots, 4 Saturna flowers and 10 grams of Shabazz bark. Bring all the ingredients to the boil over a low heat. Take in small doses for a week. The elements that are unknown to us today must be found, cultivated, or manufactured.

There is no question that the insight and sheer brilliance of the artistic research in Futuristic Ancestry: Warping Matter and Space-time(s) dictates the tone for the rest of the visit. Downstairs, Human / Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World features images and photographic installations by 14 international artists, including Mexico’s Alfredo de Stefano, Britain’s Cig Harvey and China’s Yan Wang Preston, recently awarded the Prize for Environmental Responsibility by The Royal Photographic Society. Between the Afrofuturist outlook that Ntjam gave us – and absorbed us in its defiant saturation – and the clear, painstaking beauty – almost sterile, in some cases – of the group show, two different perspectives on nature stand in stark contrast. Whilst in the former the bodies are hybrids, metamorphic, virtually dehumanised, the latter presupposes that there is – albeit there should not be – a radical break between the terrain of humanity and the terrain of the natural. As such, many of the works depict them as non-contaminated, artificially distanced existences. But there are a few exceptions, such as the works by the duo Inka & Niclas and Brendan Pattengale, who succeed in removing “nature” and “human” from their strict fields of meaning, re-establishing a magical, profound and complex relationship between the two.

Lastly, Daniel Arsham, a sculptor who is now presenting his photographic practice for the first time, can also be read through an ecological standpoint. His images – although he had no initial plans to exhibit them as artistic objects – certainly reflect his authorial flair, especially in his attempt to capture a time that surpasses human fate. By pointing the camera either at urban or green environments; or at singular details of interior spaces, or at the impersonal immensity of the skies; or at people, or at statues; nature in PHASES is melancholia: the experience of greatness, the permanence of ruin.

There are many natures, after all. There is room for invention, strangeness and, naturally, sorrow. Cohabitation is required.

In closing order, Human / Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World is on show at Fotografiska New York until May 19; Futuristic Ancestry: Warping Matter and Space-time(s), by Josèfa Ntjam until May 25; and PHASES by Daniel Arsham until June 13.

Laila Algaves Nuñez (Rio de Janeiro, 1997) is an independent researcher, writer and project manager in cultural communication, particularly interested in the future studies developed in philosophy and the arts, as well as in trans-feminist contributions to imagination and social and ecological thought. With a BA in Social Communication with a major in Cinema (PUC-Rio) and a MA in Aesthetics and Artistic Studies (NOVA FCSH), she collaborates professionally with various national and international initiatives and institutions, such as BoCA - Biennial of Contemporary Arts, Futurama - Cultural and Artistic Ecosystem of Baixo Alentejo and Terra Batida / Rita Natálio.

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