Joy Yamusangie and Ronan Mckenzie Embrace Movement Through Mythology
The artists discuss "WATA," their new film exploring African ancestral myths and the power of community.
Photographer Ronan Mckenzie and mixed-media artist Joy Yamusangie have always bonded over an instinctual connection to the color blue. Both London-based, they continually crossed paths in the city's creative circles, finding themselves drawn to each other's work. Soon conversation gave way to collaboration—trading artworks, photographs, films, and music revealed another shared fascination: water. They discussed the importance of “looking back to those who came before”, and eventually Yamusangie suggested they take a look at the story of Mami Wata, an old ancestral myth rooted in traditions of the African diaspora. It became a point of entry for this film, made in partnership with Gucci. WATA, Yamusangie explains, is centered on "the stories that we have heard and how those stories directly reflect us and our lives, as people and as artists.”
Mami Wata is a water spirit, who according to lore is often seen carrying expensive baubles like combs, watches, and coins. Her most prized object is a mirror, which serves as a conduit for time travel, movement from the present into the future. Those who gaze into this mirror are magically empowered to manifest their deepest desires. “Opening in deep blue, our film introduces the dynamic between ‘Mami Wata’ and ‘The Musician’, who is enticed by Mami Wata’s jewels," says Mckenzie. While working on the film, both artists were thrilled to learn more about how their storytelling practices intersect, knowing already that they shared similar “sensitive tendencies toward color," explains Yamusangie, whose paintings informed some of the scene compositions.
The two thought a great deal about how they might translate the force of water visually. They decided to cast a crew of dancers, “Wata Souls”, to bring the element to life. They worked with Abdourahman Nije, a choreographer whose passionate, pulsating approach to movement helped them communicate as a unified force. There was plenty of rehearsal, but on the day of the shoot Nije invited them to “forget everything they've learned, and just let it flow.”
“What intrigued us most were the stories people told after interacting with Mami Wata, claiming to have experienced improved health and increased wealth. We were interested in the ‘disappearance chapter’ where no-one seemed to know exactly what had happened, just that their lives were somewhat better after the interaction,” says Yamusangie. They interpreted this "disappearance chapter" as "a dream and confrontation," with previous generations as Yamusangie puts it, adding “for us, these moments symbolize a respectful regard for our origins and ancestry, they are us accepting these histories and using them as a means for connecting with each other. [It is] a celebration and appreciation of our rich culture and African heritage, our freedom of experimentation, our lives in London.”
Both directors were delighted to see how much this story resonated with the rest of their team, especially music supervisor Melo-Zed, who— alongside Roxanne Tataei, Birame Seck and Boofti—composed an original score for the film. It’s about “us sharing and connecting with those around us, and enjoying creating newness inspired by what’s passed,” says Yamusangie. They felt truly aligned after hearing “the horns, the elongated introductions, the rhythm switches and how the music didn’t adhere to a set structure but created its own," shares Mckenzie, describing a logic that drives every aspect of the film. “Everyone had their own personal interpretations and connections, creating their own small stories within the larger one.” Their ultimate accomplishment was creating space for community, says Yamusangie. “It was more than just a collaboration between the two of us.”
The hope is that WATA will be the first of many shared projects; they are currently developing a joint exhibition featuring their respective mediums. “Collaborating in this way—being artists from completely different practices—has allowed us to learn about each other’s processes.” Even though, as Yamusangie says, they've "always translated our intent in contrasting ways,” they enjoyed negotiating those differences and discovering their similarities. Mckenzie agrees, adding “We've allowed the knowledge within our respective fields to flow between us and bond to create this moving image art piece that we feel represents us both in strength and in equality. Our film is about appreciation, communication and sharing, and our collaboration is a testament to the very bones of what makes up WATA.”
Written & Directed by Joy Yamusangie and Ronan Mckenzie Produced by Julie Vergez Cinematography by Beatriz Sastre Movement Direction by Abdourahman Nije Talents Rudzani Moleya as ‘Mami Wata’, Abdourahman Nije as ‘The Musician’, Alison Letang, Andre Atangana, Jordan Clarke, Kirk Reid, Miranda Chambers, Prince & Majesty, Treasure Iyamu as ‘Wata Souls, Guest Appearances by Roxanne Tataei, Melo-Zed & Boofti Music Supervision by Melo-Zed Music Composition & Production Melo-Zed, Roxanne Tataei Vocalists Biram Seck, Roxanne Tataei Saxophonist Boofti Casting Tytiah Blake / Unit-C Styling & Costume Design Tess Herbert Production Design Sophie Durham Make-Up Artist Megumi Matsuno Hair Stylists Shamara Roper, Russie Miessi Editor Maxim Young Colourist Jason Wallis at Electric Theatre Company Post-Producer at Electric Theatre Company Oliver Whitworth VFX Artist Gaspar Matheron (Les Fistons), Alexandra Verhaest, Stefan Wähner Post-Producer at Les Fistons Arthur De Seze First Assistant Director Elle Lotherington Third Assistant Director Jens Klit Nielsen Production Coordinator Ayesha McMahon Production Assistants Ourania Mamalis, Mantenso Kotomah Runner Yasmin Tippett Steadicam Andrew Bainbridge Focus Puller JJ Sullivan Clapper-Loader Ashton Born Gaffer Joe Sherno Sparks Jovan Lawrence, Jon Prentice Spark Trainees George Wright, Shaun Witherup Grip Nick Teulon Grip Trainee Bradley Sinclair Wardrobe Assistants Lulu Bullock, Stephanie Aelbrecht Assistant Art Directors Alexander Scott, David Murray, James Findlay 1st Assistant Set Designer Sammy Cullis Make-Up Assistants Lisa Chau, Juri Nakayama, Manabu Nobuoka Hair Stylist Assistant Shanice Buckley Production Company Cadence Paris Executive Producer Carole Guenebeaud Production Coordinator Alice Du Lac Production Company Julie Machin LTD