The Sweet Taste of Otherness, 2020, installation, audio, pottery, diffusor, UV lamp, lightbox, negatives, asphalt sheet, plants: bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), taro (Colocasia esculenta, var. Black Magic), inchplant (Tradescantia zebrina, Wandering Jew), hair, video
courtesy of the artist
The sweet taste of my Otherness caught me by surprise. It was during my adolescence when I recognized the fragrant, bittersweet scent of cocoa permeating my life. I was a chocolate bar. I was a moist chocolate cake with sour cherries. I was a dark chocolate-coated marshmallow ice creamlike treat served to children after Sunday mass. I was a deep red; the juiciest of all of the strawberries – bursting into flames of sweetness. My pointy tits ornamented with raisins were sizzling on their tongues. The augury of my fate written in my father’s flavoursome lips and his tender kiss gifted to my mother has been fulfilled. And yet, regardless of all the sweetness, these words leave a bad taste in my mouth whenever articulated and thrown as an insult.
from Maja ∀. Ngom, “The Sweet Taste of Otherness,” Obieg (2019), no. 13
The Sweet Taste of Otherness is the London-based Polish-Senegalese artist’s first presentation in Poland. The exhibition space arranged by Ngom is filled with elements comprising a narrative about multiethnic identity and with materials evoking the stigmatizing terms of racist language. In this vein, the floor is lined with asphalt sheet, the air smells of chocolate, and selected plants are displayed, such as bamboo, taro, or inchplant, brought from Senegal, where the artist’s father comes from. The forms of the ceramic pots in which the plants grow allude to stereotypical representations of black women – oversized lips, torso, and buttocks – comprising a peculiar self-portrait of the artist. The objects bring to mind images of pre-historical Black-Venus figurines, but also hark back to Alina Szapocznikow’s corporeal sculptures, including self-portraits, particularly those from the period when the artist portrayed her body in disease. Ngom’s vision of the deformed body has, however, been informed by the experience not so much of a physical disease as a systemic malady: structural racism, discriminatory cultural codes, and colonial representations. Another bodily material used in the installation is the artist’s own hair – an important aspect of an Afro-Polish identity – which she has woven into beads to create a form reminiscent of a door curtain. Also included in the space are lightboxes with Ngom’s self-portrait and a video collage in which she appears with Sylwia Achu, an Afro-Polish actress from Warsaw. In the latter, images of an eye and a hand alternate with scenes of affection between the protagonists, who, facing the camera, consume bars of chocolate. In this way, the artist activates reflection on an identity “dislocation” caused by being perceived by an “other” (black) body, as discussed, for example, by Frantz Fanon in The Fact of Blackness. The installation’s final element is a soundtrack produced in collaboration with Ania Mokrzycka – a medley of pop songs by Sade, Grace Jones, and Sun Ra, tracks by Senegalese mbalax singers Fatou Guewel and Kine Lam, and fragments of soundtracks from the TV series Roots and Escrava Isaura – all music productions that matter for the artist in the context of her ethnic background: representations of blackness and otherness in music that can hardly be found on the Polish scene. During the playlist, Ngom repeats litanies of stigmatizing terms (Negro, bamboo, nigger, chocolate, negative, asphalt).
Maja ∀. Ngom is a Polish-Senegalese visual artist living in London. She graduated from the Department of Photography at the Royal College of Art London (2015) and Neophilology at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań (2005). In her work she combines photographic, video and text practice, introducing elements of sculpture and installation.
In her artistic activities she often draws on her personal experiences and narrations, which result from her multi-ethnic origins. In her works she asks questions about otherness, race and family ties, thus referring to universal topics related to identity.
In her works she explores the issues of multiraciality and blackness in a broad perspective of Black Studies, as well as the specific shape of these categories in the view of Polish context. The artist's research and creative interests also include language and its influence on the perception of cultural reality, and symbolism related to visual ethnic-racial codes.
Her essay entitled The Sweet Taste of Otherness was published in the Obieg quarterly in 2019. In 2020, she presented a performative reading, under the same title, at the group exhibition Recovery at the Chalton Gallery, London.
In the near future, the artist plans to establish the Dark Polish Archives – Archiwum Ciała (Dark Polish Archives of the Body), which will store the narratives of people with Polish-African roots in the context of their experience of growing up in Poland.
She is also working on a project in Senegal, in which the architecture of the
megalithic ruins combined with the musical style of mbalax will help in a search of the spirits of her ancestors.