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Maja Absa Ngom

MA Photography, 2013–15

I started off studying languages and cultural studies, but I once had this amazing tutor who spoke about photography, and the theory of photography, in such a way that I felt that was what I wanted to pursue. I started to experiment with my own work and she gave me the confidence to continue.

I left Poland, where I’m from, and came to London to my BA in Photography at the London College Communication. I wanted to take some time between my BA and MA to make sure it’s what I wanted. In that year, I worked on a project that I was considering continuing as part of a Master’s, and also working in a restaurant to save money. I think it’s important to take those breaks, to give yourself time to develop.

The Royal College of Art seemed to be one of the few Colleges that has a distinct Photography programme within a Fine Art department, and that’s what really attracted me. There were also many writers and artists on the academic staff at the RCA who I admire, such as Yve Lomax who is Senior Research Tutor in Photography, and Brian Dillon, a tutor on the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme. The more I researched the College, the more I realised that most of the artists I like studied there, so that reinforced my decision to go there.

Starting out was a bit overwhelming, and between lectures, tutorials, crits, and working long hours in the restaurant alongside that, it was difficult to find time to make work. In the end, I discovered that I can thrive in that environment, and having such limited time made me very productive.

The project that I pursued throughout my time at the RCA involves my grandparents, who are based in Poland. Working on one project all that time was intense, and different to what everyone else was doing. I took an almost ethnographic approach, in the sense that I was back and forth between Poland and London all the time, always trying to find a way to present the narrative I wanted to create.

One of the things the RCA gave me, was the ability to experiment with different media. I started to work with sculpture and bronze casting, which I’d never tried before. That was very much encouraged and the Photography programme really helped to facilitate it. Working in sculpture also opened up my work to a whole new context of conversations and perspectives.

In my final Show work, which was titled Encrusted Island, I had three large-format, black-and-white silver gelatine photographs. I developed them myself in the darkroom, and that’s an important part of the making process for me. Two were portraits of my grandparents holding pieces of tree roots that I found in a forest near them in Poland, and one was a still life. These photographs were placed next to Temple – a set of veneered plinths with bronze and wax objects displayed together with petrified wood and a desert rose crystal.

The work was in reference to the myth of Philemon and Baucis, an old married couple who welcomed disguised gods into their home and were rewarded for their hospitality. My grandparents raised me, so I’ve tried to honour them but also, by re-telling the myth through my personal narrative, I wanted to explore the idea of preserving something fragile and transient by encrusting it into something heavily present – a sort of metamorphosis of the bond that connects me with my grandparents into a work of art.

One of the most important things the RCA gave me was confidence and belief in my work. I don’t come from an art family and I came to art practice from theoretical beginnings but, through being challenged, I’ve been able to develop my own voice. 

An initiative called Academy Now has contacted me about possibly working with them, and I’ve been invited to apply with my portfolio to a photography museum in Switzerland. At the same time, I am really looking forward to making new work, so we’ll see how it goes.

"One of the most important things the RCA gave me was confidence and belief in my work. I don’t come from an art family and I came to art practice from theoretical beginnings but, through being challenged, I’ve been able to develop my own voice."
Maja Absa Ngom
Maja Absa Ngom