The History of Disco Is Black and Queer: a Conversation With Anna Tjé

Anna Tje and her alter-ego Nyum the Supernova explore performance art in France by doing it their way. They reclaim the history of disco and how it is fundamentally black and queer.

After an article about the first ever Afrofem Festival “Nyansapo”, this piece is the second of a series exploring Pioneering Black Women in Paris.

When Anna Tjé dresses herself with a metallic combi suit and applies colorful glitter on her lips, she becomes Nyum the Supernova, a performance artist who has transformed galleries like the European Contemporary Artistic Actions Center and Faubourg 12, into healing places.

Most of the objects that she uses in her performances are handmade, even the sequined hat she wears for it. Behind her, projected on a screen, anonymous black women are dancing near a rainbow, playing like children. We rarely take time to read art descriptions in museums, but when Nyum found its way to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar last March, I decided to discover more about the Pontoise-born artist. How did her alter-ego travel so quickly through African diaspora? I needed to know the answers.

Hi Anna. Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

I’m a performer and co-founder of the artistic and literary revue Ataye, launched in 2016. I’m also a Ph.D. student in Arts & Media with a specialty in performance and theater studies.

It seems that your experience crossed many mediums: texts, movies, installations, even costumes you did yourself. Would you describe it as an exploration of art or are you claiming a multidisciplinary art?

I completely reclaim a multidisciplinary practice. Being the co-founder of Ataye and a performer, I think it came from being raised by my mother. I’ve always seen her as a multitasker. She always had two jobs, and I’ve always seen her as a hustler. It was proof that all my life I’d have to work twice as hard. I know that the “twice as hard” mentality can also be toxic and it doesn’t really allow me to be at ease. I’m always in a rush but I don’t know how to work otherwise. I use my body through performing, and this is when I can go further: my body can be on stage, or in the middle of a room; it says something in the installation. I often use videos as well. My art is finally an occasion for these mediums to meet. So this is my way to tell a story. 

© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

Knowing that Paris has a strong cultural background, do you feel it influenced your work in any way? How did you come to art?

I stopped everything and asked myself: what do I want? I love art, I like writing and creating… but I’m not a warrior. It was huge for me to recognize that I can’t do it all. I had to accept that art is not something you can do when you’re not financially at the top. It’s funny because I got this revelation while wandering in a borough of Paris. Later, I graduated in publishing and worked in communication. These two experiences permit me to write more and develop my skills — it’s out of this experience that Ataye was born. Diariatou Kebe and I created this space for unheard voices from African descents. And I was able to be more vocal about my struggles, my studies, and my path to finding myself. 


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

It’s really interesting to learn more about your path because it looks like a genesis of your work. What I noticed is how you challenge identities, especially black women in European contexts, while questioning the future. For example, I think about your collaboration with La Gaîté Lyrique during the festival Afrocyberfeminisms. Do Afrofeminism and Afrofuturism shape your work and why?

It all started with me being online, honestly. On Twitter, I was seeing many confident black women who were outspoken about their struggles. Some of them were activists, some were artists. I think I found power in meeting other black women who were vocal about their despair, their pain and their suffering; but also about their joy and their resilience. 

As a black woman, it was important that Disco comes with African spirituality, especially when we know that it has been whitewashed, and portrayed as cheap and tacky.

I was going through violent experiences in my personal life and I had a hard time figuring out what was happening to me. So, with a lot of self-reflection, and reading these online conversations, I could put words to living as a black woman. This got me reflecting on my youth, my childhood, and on the fact that I had been a foster kid as well. I had lived through a lot of trauma and I neglected how deeply it had affected me.


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

In 2015, my grandmother passed away and I looked at her past. I knew she had been an activist in Cameroun, but nothing more. I Googled her and I found a book about her, and her resistance. I was so shocked. This became a form of power, a weapon for me. So I went on and looked for more stories about women activists; mainly queer women and queer black women. It was important to me to bring all these voices together, and see how they were bringing wisdom and resilience for us to have a better life as a community.

A lot of topics about heritage, resilience, struggles remind me your last art piece Nyum Elucubris. You describe it as a short experimental film along with performances, which explore Bassa deities, disco influences and Afrofeminism. How did you come up with this project?

Nyum Elucubris came out last October. As a transdisciplinary artist, I wanted to create a story about emancipation. To me, that’s what disco is about. Along the exhibition, there was a projection of Saturday Night Fever, and I don’t know if you watched it, but that move is bad. Full of imagery of anti-blackness, misogyny, and rape. And the thing is, if you look for something about disco you’ll find this movie, as if it’s an adequate representation of what disco is.



Yeah, it’s even presented as iconic, so…

I thought, “I want to talk about disco as an emancipatory way to liberate ourselves”; and I wanted to explore the true values of it. Those values were about liberation, creating safe places, solidarity and being unapologetic. When I found out that disco inspired other musical genres like house, and is described as healing by many musicians. I thought about Cameroonian singings from my village, especially from the Bassa tribe.


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

There’s a dance called Assiko to help women who have a hard time with their menstruation or with their fecundity. Disco and Assiko both share the same healing value, and so I added a bassa deity, Nyum, who appears as a rainbow deity and a fertility spirit; and then, my memories from a visit to Bimbia, a slave trade port in Cameroon. She navigates through several dimensions to heal.

The heirs of disco culture are so diverse; ballroom culture, voguing culture, and the drag scene

I called her Elucubris, like “élucubrations” (hare-brained ideas). As a black woman, it was important that Disco comes with African spirituality, especially when we know that it has been whitewashed, and portrayed as cheap and tacky.


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

The heirs of disco culture are so diverse; ballroom culture, voguing culture, and the drag scene. I am proud of the ballroom culture here in Paris and the way it gets visibility. When I think about Kiddy Smile, he’s a gay black boy, and of Cameroonian descent like me, who couldn’t find space to express himself. He’s proud and flamboyant, and he wants to create togetherness, and I wish to do the same with the Nyum Supernova House. Nyum became an alter ego for me, and I want to see her living with joy.

Do you feel you have to disconnect from a larger audience by code-switching?

I don’t think it disconnects me, because I’ve chosen to find my voice and to not assimilate myself.  It provides me a sense of liberty, but I’m still learning about these codes and how to use them to my advantage. My personal goal is to find my own voice. When I look at Frantz Fanon’s writing or even bell hooks’ writing, they are both academic and personal. I don’t think my strategy ostracizes me from people I want to reach.


© Hannah Polinksi/HEREYOUARE

To them, I’m not supposed to be where I am today. So to be a self-taught artist as I am, I have to take space more than ever. So I have to understand the domain I’m living in, to switch codes when it’s needed but to always stay true to myself. 


Follow Anna Tje’s work on, Instagram and Twitter.

This article has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Laura Nsafou also known as Mrs Roots, is an afrofeminist blogger and author. She reviews books from afro literatures and writes articles about afrofeminism in France. Her different projects challenge antiblackness and seek for a fair representation of black women’s in French culture. Founder of the Afrolab workshop, she is also the author of the famous children book Like Million black butterflies (Comme un million de papillons noirs), published at Editions Cambourakis.