Q&A: Photographer Namsa Leuba
Namsa Leuba is an astute visual storyteller. Whether capturing candid glimpses of mundane family life or exquisitely composed fashion fantasies, Leuba hints at worlds of rich, mythological narrative just outside the frame. Although only recently graduated from ECAL/University in Switzerland, Leuba’s already managed to cover an impressive variety of subject matter in her work, including an homage to the Black Panthers and a survey of bad-ass Congolese style.
One of Leuba’s main academic interests is African identity seen through Western eyes, and nowhere does this come into focus more than her series Ya Kala Ben. In 2011, Leuba left Switzerland and traveled to her mother’s homeland of Guinea to shoot the series, which draws upon the spiritual symbolism of Guinean animist artifacts and statuettes.
Modesty, luck, fecundity or a channel for exorcism, those statuettes hold a cultural value through what they represent or symbolise. With this work, I transform these objects, cosmological symbols of a community, who traditionally have a signification when used as part of rituals.
…In recontextualizing these sacred objects through the lens, I brought them in a framework meant for Western aesthetic choices and taste.
This photographic eye would make them speak differently. Throughout my fieldwork, I had to deal with sometimes violent reactions from Guineans who viewed my procedures/practices as a form of sacrilege. Some were afraid and were struck with astonishment.
The result is a stunning series of images that draws upon documentary and fashion photography to tell a personal story of African heritage. In Happy Polish, Leuba investigates an entirely disparate branch of her family tree. From an interview with LightRa:
One of my father’s uncles is married to a Polish woman and they have been living there for many years now. They have a fabric factory there and are quite wealthy people, and I got interested in the lives of their workers and of their family’s maids.
Embedding herself deeply within the lives of these workers’ families, Leuba captured gracefully intimate images of Polish domesticity: meals, idle moments, after-school malaise, midnight hi-jinks. Wherever globally her subject is situated, Leuba approaches with versatility, curiosity and empathy– yet she never loses her distinctive voice, and her eye for composition and color remains impeccable.
What do you like to see in a fashion photograph? Is there a mood or feeling you like your fashion work to be imbued with?
Sometimes I like to do fashion projects, but in a fine art direction and to have a fashion aesthetic. I try to do something fresh. I think that most of the time fashion pictures are very boring. I want to keep on my own project. That’s the thing that’s really important for me.
In Ya Kala Ben, you “desecrate” Guinean ritual artifacts by re-contextualizing them within Western stylistic choices– but you also spent months researching Guinean animist rituals and symbols. How did the artifacts’ original meanings inform your shooting?
I selected the artifacts meticulously to function with my pictures. It’s all dependent on the meaning of the situation. I take what I need to make my own ritual.
How did you find the Guinean models and acrobats featured in Ya Kala Ben? Was it difficult convincing them to participate in a project that some saw as sacrilege?
I traveled all across Guinea to accommodate the different rituals and ceremonies in my series. I went to so many places to find the good spots and to choose the right people. I personally created all the costumes and I chose every single thing that I used. When I got ready to shoot, I could waste no time. I had to avoid the sometimes violent reactions from people, because my humans models meant something holy.
Do you feel more connected to your Guinean roots after making Ya Kala Ben?
This trip was an opportunity to reconnect with some of my roots. I have always wanted to explore and share this other culture that is part of me. And I knew that the best way to do so was to visit the village founded by my great-grandfather. This pilgrimage to the land of some of my ancestors inevitably and immediately raised the sensitive question of “origin” or “origins.” Mine, that of my parents, of others (my subjects) and of my approach.
What sort of reactions have you gotten from Guineans who’ve seen the finished project of Ya Kala Ben?
Nobody has seen my work yet in Afrika. I would like to show them. I am sure it will be very interesting.
Throughout your work, images of bodies bound by rope, as well as faces obscured by plants and fabric seem to frequently arise. What attracts you to these aesthetic refrains?
This world is rigour, everything is in its place. I try to make with them to sculpt my subject. The sculpture it is the equivalent of a sacred text.
In both Happy Polish and Ya Kala Ben, you seem to have fully immersed yourself in an unfamiliar world. How do you navigate unfamiliar social territory to produce such gorgeously intimate images? What do you like about placing yourself in those types of situations?
I like meeting people and learning new things about them that I have not known. I am a social person. I like the challenge. It is very exciting and great. I think that I like knowing new people.
Where would you like your photography to take you in the future?
I am very enthusiastic for what’s coming next. At the beginning of 2014 I will go to South Africa for 5 months for my work. I won an artist residency there. I would like to travel around the world and have the luxury to keep working on my personal projects.