Namsa Leuba was born in Switzerland in 1982 and studied photography at the university of Art and Design Lausanne where she also obtained a Masters in Art Direction. Her diverse photographic practice takes a look at how African identity is represented through the Western imagination. Her work comes together as a culmination of fashion photography, documentary photography and performance art. However, from reading through her explanation of her ‘YA KALA BEN’ series, there is an element of her approach which problematically asks people from her ancestral home in Guinea to perform their culture for a Western framework. In this article I will delve into Leuba’s technique and images with this critical stance in mind.
Creating imagery exploring the signs and symbols of her cultural heritage, Namsa’s work takes signifiers from rituals, ceremonies, masquerade practices and religious idols bound to specific cultures. Namsa’s projects have a strong anthropological flow and take an interest in traditional customs. Her aesthetic, informed by fashion as well as design sensibilities, is captured either on location in areas such as her ancestral hometown in Guinea or in constructed studio based environments. Namsa executes both these stylistic choices with immense ease and precision.
Her theatrical approach to her practice indicates clear-cut attention paid to colour, props and the use of gestures. In her work she questions the relationships between actualities and fabrication, action and depiction as well as the sanctified and the sacrilegious. Namsa’s work has not shown any indications of coyness and has received plenty of attention by various publications and exhibitions. Her work has travelled the world and Namsa currently bases her life between Africa and Europe.
All of the above considered, let’s take a closer look at her photographic series titled ‘YA KALA BEN’. Namsa’s series was photographed on a trip that she took to the capital of Guinea, Conakry. Namsa explains that in this body of work she took particular interest in the construction and deconstruction of the human body as well as depictions of what cannot be seen with the eye – here she is referring to occurrences on a spiritual or mystical level.
Namsa has studied the ritual artifacts that are usual to the cosmology of the Guineans such as the religious idols that form part of their ceremonial structure. “They are from another world, they are the roots of the living. Thereby, I sought to touch the untouchable.” Namsa expresses.
Namsa continues to state that these idols represent a variety of things such as modesty, fertility, luck or a channel with which to practice exorcism, and hold cultural significance through what they symbolise and represent. With this body of work Namsa transforms these artifacts that are cosmological symbols of the Guinea community and traditionally contain religious significance when used to perform ritualistic practices.
“These objects are part of a collective that they must not be separated from, or risk loosing their value. They are not the gods of this community but their prayers. They are integrated in a rigorous symbolic order, where every component has its place. They are ritual tools that I have animated by staging live models and in a way to desecrate them by giving them another meaning; an unfamiliar meaning in the Guinean context.”
Namsa also makes the following statement, “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.”
Coming back to the issues expressed at the beginning of this piece, I believe that in some regards Namsa’s series, ‘YA KALA BEN’ can be considered a deliberate attempt to portray elements of Guinean culture with a Western view point. This can be drawn back to the fact that she is firstly European born, and secondly she states that she is causing an act of desecration, and that her practice within the area was met with violent reactions from the Guinean people. However it can again be argued that Namsa is in fact contesting this Western viewpoint with work that can be considered to be extremely loaded and plays on satire, as her heritage traces back to Guinea. Namsa’s work is executed well and it is evident that she plans meticulously. Her use of performance, fashion and documentary style photography all weave into one another and work together to create powerful imagery, evidently appealing to her audience.