namsa leuba's bright portraits splice guinean spirituality and fashion
"Women have their place now. We show another sensibility and point of view of the images."
Namsa Leuba grew up in a Muslim and Protestant household in Switzerland with a Guinean mother and Swiss father. Her mixed background led her to pursue the cross-referencing she was accustomed to through photography. She focuses on African identity and practices filtered through her own Western-bred perspective. Leuba infuses local animist culture (researched during travels to Guinea) with a fashion photography bent, influenced in part by the aesthetics of Nick Knight and Kourtney Roy. Having visited "marabouts"--a type of witch doctor--in her youth, Leuba further immersed herself by taking part in ceremonies and rituals related to the world of spirits. Straddling the embodied and the intangible, her street-cast models channel the meeting point between her two realities. Some Guineans regard the images as a violation of well-defined tradition, sparking questions of whether differing cultural tropes can, in fact, harmonize.
Recently part of "The Female Gaze" showcase—a subset of the first Photo Vogue Festival held last week in Milan—and Paris Photo, Leuba discusses here intermingling cultures, neutralizing gender, and the solace of taking off her watch.
There might not be two more different places than Switzerland and Guinea. Can you talk about how, growing up, you were informed by both?
I was born in, and grew up in, Switzerland; I did all of my education there. That means that the way I perceive the world around me, and my sensitivity to things, was developed in Switzerland. Even though I have a double heritage, I spent much more time in Europe than in Africa. I could never say that I look at the world with African eyes; I look through Western eyes. However, in my work, I try to reconcile the two.
I think that to be a mix of cultures is a great wealth. My parents instilled both cultures in me and shared their history as well. When I began studying at ECAL University of Art and Design [in Lausanne], I knew that I wanted to deepen my knowledge about my African roots and I decided to focus on that.
Why does a visual medium best address this bi-cultural theme?
My work in photography could be considered my own ritual. Photography allows me to exteriorize my emotions and my past, to tell my story using different shots, but with some kind of syncretism. Through a lens, I test my self-analysis and I put myself up for discussion. In some ways, my photographs are judgments, or accusations. I constantly question myself, which is very challenging. From this spiritual [dilemma], I create the plasticity of the picture.
Your work is about ritual with a twist—what is essential to preserve of the original, if anything?
By being present in those places, I came to decontextualize the symbols. I give them another meaning by questioning their structure of origin. I am particularly interested in the attribution of religious or mystical qualities to inanimate objects, known as fetishes. The myths, the force of nature, and the deep, intuitive, impulsive culture of Africa offered a lot of creative inspiration. My approach was to separate those sacred statuettes from their religious context, in order to immortalize them in a Western framework.
What was your relationship with the models?
The models were people from different villages; I did a casting from the street. Most of the time they were stressed, because they were not used to modeling and being part of a shoot. That is why I had to work very quickly all the time.
The pace at which people in Guinea got things done surprised me. Everything took longer. I found myself wasting a day waiting for people to show up. On the second day, I took off my watch to be able to relate. I learned how to work at the Guinean pace. However, the systematic lateness of models posed some technical problems, like the changing light during the day.
Western aesthetics, in art and fashion, often re-appropriate other cultural tastes. More and more frequently, people are being called out for omitting due credit. What are your thoughts?
While making Ya Kala Ben, I was inspired by African statuettes, but there is another context -- costumes, fabrics, props. I enjoy fashion photography, and sometimes I draw on that to make sure the series isn't boring. I have always been inspired by it. Intermixing is more and more present in our society. The aesthetic language in my work matches this melting pot of spirit, culture, and aesthetic from my origins. My search of identity stays intrinsically linked with a desire for creativity and originality. I think we should do what we want.
Could you discuss what you've been working on recently, and what's upcoming?
The series NGL, and Tonköma, were made in 2015. NGL, an acronym for "Next Generation Lagos," explores the creativity of Nigeria's youth culture through a surrealist and psychedelic filter. It was produced during an artist residency there, and features Nigerian fashion designers (I.AM.ISIGO, Tzar Studios, Maxivive, Tokyo James, Adeju Thompson, Re Bahia, Torlowei, Deco). Tonköma, which translates to "people stand up," was produced for Edun, a fashion brand founded by Ali Hewson and Bono that focuses on sourcing production and encouraging trade in Africa. In the images, a group of masqueraders on stilts pose with fashion models on a rooftop in Johannesburg. It was inspired by the Nyamou in Guinea, believed to be the "devils" in the holy forest that protect it from bad spirits, who communicate with ancestors in the sky and the earth. I incorporate West African masks, pieces of wood, fake hair and African jewelry alongside Edun clothes. Many of the fabrics are similar to those found in the forests of Guinea, where the Nyamou are from.
Now I am working on a different project about Africa; in January I will do project in Benin. And next summer something in Tahiti.
You're part of "The Female Gaze" showcase at Photo Vogue Festival in Milan, which seeks to valorize women behind the lens. Have you encountered a gender divide?
For myself, no. Everyone has their own style. I think in art, you're chosen because someone likes your stuff; otherwise they choose some else. Women have their place now. We show another sensibility and point of view of the images. It's good that there are more and more women on the scene now.
Text Sarah Moroz
Photography courtesy and copyright Namsa Leuba/Camera Galerie