Writer, freedom fighter, and visual artist Elijah Ndoumbé has been pushing the boundaries of art and identity through their thoughtful and fiercely passionate work. The boldly queer creative uses writing, film, and photography to amplify the voices and stories of folks whose narratives often, in their words, "go untold, or are shoved under the rug."
Currently Ndoumbé is collaborating with Black Queer London-based filmmaker and artist Nadine Davis on "Undone," a documentary webseries seeking to elevate and explore the experiences of Black Queer folks – especially those that vary on the gender spectrum.
Find their words on their inspirations, loves, and their own story in their interview with nasi below.
How you would you describe yourself?
I’ve always had a hard time with this question because I feel like my essence is something that's constantly shifting depending on the day. That's how I relate to my gender, my identity, and therefore my artistry — a fluidity that bypasses time, you know? At my core, I'd say I'm a creative soul trying to figure out how to navigate this world in a way that centers my people and the communities’ whose narratives and voices aren't being prioritized or centered in the struggle. It's been a helluva journey, so far.
I'm intense, passionate. When I know what I want: I plan, manifest, and I achieve.
Tell us about your work.
My first love is, writing. Right now it's taken the shape of creative non-fiction prose that seeks to disrupt structures of traditional writing. It explores traumas, triumphs, and existential thought processes around marginalized identities, namely Blackness/Browness, gender, queerness, etc.
I've also been doing photography and film. This is a newer sphere of work for me, but I've always been a very visual person, so it's been pretty dope being able to execute in these mediums.
How did you get started doing film/photography? What inspired you at the onset?
I've always been around folks in the industry. My mother is a makeup-artist and was a model; father works in pre-press. We also had a number of photographer friends and family. I worked for Warner Bros. to check out the PR scene, and worked for other film folks.
I'll never forget — I had just arrived in London and was very slowly connecting with other Black Queer fam. I met Nadine in Vauxhall Gardens during London’s Black Pride. We started chatting about community. I noticed she had a DSLR on her; she was taking footage for a film project. At the exact moment she was expressing this to me, I was looking through the camera lens.
I can still recall the shock that ran through my body, the internal switch that was flipped within the confines of my chest. All it took was seeing members of my community — crisp, clear, and beautiful on that screen — and I knew that I needed to do something that documented our people. That's how “Undone” was born.
Are you working on a project now?
The primary project at work right now is the “Undone” series, which started in London with Nadine. The series seeks to amplify the voices of Black queer/LGBTQ, gender-variant folk. We recently launched the trailer for the project and are in the process of prepping for the release of the first season.
See it here: www.undoneseries.com
Writing wise, I'm working on a piece that looks at the decolonization of desire between Black (mixed-Black) queer bodies of the diaspora, and the ways in which various dynamics of power and struggle are always inherently present in the room, especially when sexual desire erupts.
Can you tell us a bit about your artistic process?
I recall writing a piece where I spent an entire month just pounding out work. I felt it in my chest. I had to get it out. When I get like that, I can't speak to anyone; I can't engage. I need to be in a room, unbothered, creative hands digging and scraping and searching for meaning around a muse that has incited the need for the work to be released. When that piece finally was published I was exhausted and didn't write for months following.
Since then, I've tried to ease myself back into writing. Part of this has been me developing a spiritual practice forcing me to stop, breathe, still my mind and observe what is happening within and outside of me. As I execute this more — meditating, rituals of movement to warm the body, reading snippets of Rumi to help set intention for my day. Also, collaborating and working with other folks helps immensely with collective imagining and creative execution.
Is there a particular reaction you'd like to see in response to your work?
I want people to engage with the work in a way that, when they depart, they do so with a question, a critique, or a need to do something. It shouldn't be a clean break. It's messy, criss-crossing, confusing, and mind-bending. If I'm not adding nuance to a conversation or starting a new one, then I haven't done my job as an artist.
Are there certain people or individuals which have impacted you?
Too many to name. [In] terms of my current writing, I'm drawing a lot of influence from Rankine, Nelson, and Díaz, to name a few. They do exactly what I'm striving to -— disrupting the traditional flow of writing, while weaving topics of race, diaspora, and queerness seamlessly into their work.
Lorde, Moraga, Fanon. But I want to give a shoutout to one of my writing mentors, Harriet Clark. She continuously challenges me in ways that have really made me shift my thought processes around writing. And shout out to A-lan Holt for always being a spiritual rock and source of encouragement when the creative road looks too tough to tackle.
Visually, I love me some Steve McQueen — he holds shots for so damn long it forces you to engage with the feeling of uncomfortability - is that a word? – that arises. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm a big fan of Zanele Muholi's work. Haunting, but so damn engaging and life giving. It's important for me to see that happening by someone who is Black and Queer.
I just recently watched the documentary ”Dreams Are Colder Than Death” by Arthur Jafa. A filmmaker who forces you to really engage with a moment. I was put on to Jafa's work by my friend, dream — a documentary filmmaker who directed “Treasure; From Tragedy to Trans Justice, Mapping a Detroit Story”. Kyla Phil, an amazing filmmaker and friend. It's people like Kyla, dream, and Nadine who foster love, encouragement, and growth. I'm grateful for these folks and the countless others who've been a part of my current journey.
Tell us about one of your favorite memories thus far.
Nadine and I were in New Orleans earlier this summer shooting one of our people, Mün. A day of listening, and hearing, and honoring Mün’s story and experience in their body and identities. Felt as though I’d been invited into a sacred space where we were able to engage with their home, their places, the imaginings of their mind. It is such a precious thing, to be privy to narratives that are not your own, connect with other members of your community, and find healing and love with one another.
We ended our time in New Orleans at our friend Al Tee's — eating gumbo and peanut stew on a sticky summer night…dancing, affectionately shading, laughing and just living in a room full of Black Queer folks. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. I'm so damn grateful. This is what it's about for me. The moments when the work has introduced me to so many beautiful souls.
Is there a meaning you hope your work carries, both now, previously, and in the future?
I hope it communicates love. I know that, in many ways, it communicates pain, and frustration, and grapplings with systems and dynamics of this world. But I’m trying to figure out what it means to still leave the audience with a deeply seated sentiment of resilient, mind-blowing, beautiful love. That's how we get free.
That's what I'm trying to figure out, now.
What motivates you to continue doing your work?
The need to connect narratives. I grew up being read to and was consuming literature from the moment I could read. When I was lost in confusion around my queer identity, I sought solace in watching and reading works that provided me with glimpses of what life could look like as a person who was different. I sought solace in creating stories where I felt seen.
But one of the biggest motivators has been my grandmother's story — or lack thereof. She passed away when I was 12. My grandmother, who was from Cameroon, didn't speak much to me about her history. And at the time, I wasn't asking about it. But now that I'm older, I've felt like a part of my narrative is missing. I've realized that I've tried to find my story in other peoples' — it's only now that I'm beginning to embrace my own narrative of a scattered diaspora, across various continents, people, families. It's that curiosity and need to honor my ancestors that drives me to try and do the same for others — provide a platform for them to tell their stories. It is so important that our stories be documented. Especially those of Black and Brown Queer folks. So often our narratives go untold, or are shoved under the rug. But we've been here. We've held you, we've led you, we've kept you safe and warm and loved. It’s time that you hear us, now.
What’s your next project?
The “Undone” series is taking priority, especially because Nadine and I want to travel with it. Obviously, we're both based in countries that prioritize a specific kind of capital and narrative, the U.K. and the U.S. We really want to make sure that we are also prioritizing our fam in other parts of the world besides the Global North / West.
Given unlimited resources, what would you create? what are your dreams?
I've been thinking a lot about what it means to center the Global South, as a member of a country that literally functions as an oppressive economic and military presence around the world. Or what it means to create and foster spaces by and for us.
I know people are doing this work already, but how do we foster community-engaged art at a more expansive level? Collective storytelling? Spaces that seek to challenge folks and make them uncomfortable without fear of repercussion? I just want to write and make things, to dance, cook, laugh with my chosen fam, and live in a world where I don't have to fear for my life or the lives of the people I love.
Why do you do what you do? Who do you create for?
I'm sure this answer will shift across time and space but, [right now], I'm doing it for my healing. My ancestors' healing. My community's healing. I'm doing this work so we can breathe. And I'm doing it because I want to be able to live in a world where I can say that the work I'm engaging in is more than just a frivolous, shallow attempt at aesthetic. I'm interested in reconnecting with the Earth — in bringing her narratives to the forefront. In connecting with people and listening; exchanging, learning, loving. To ascend to a higher level of consciousness and understanding; realizing that I am but a part of something much larger than myself - and that only happens when one stops. Listens. Honors. This kind of work - writing, documenting narratives, observing... helps me do just that. I have a long way to go, trust me. But I'm looking forward to it. I really am.
Check out their work at: www.elijahndoumbe.com
By taylor marie
Photos courtesy of Elijah Ndoumbé