Photographer Interview: Namsa Leuba

Last year I discovered the work of photographer Namsa Leuba through a Tumblr blog and have been following her ever since. This past January I got to meet Namsa in person at my ICP-Bard MFA solo show which was wonderful because it’s rare that I meet my internet contacts in person. I’ve asked Namsa to share two bodies of work that I feel are related visually. Follow Namsa Leuba’s blog to get updates on her work.

D&B: Where are you from and where are you living now?
NL: I was born to a Guinean mother and an Helvetian father. I grew up on the shores of Neuchatel’s lake in Switzerland. Now I am living in New York.

From the series The African Queens
Copyright Namsa Leuba

Your 2011 series, Ya Kala Ben was all shot in your mother’s home country of Guinea. Did you have a prior connection (as a child) to Guinean culture and it’s rituals? Tell us about how you found the subjects/people in these photographs.
All I knew before the trip was that my mother is muslim and that my father is a protestant, although I’ve not been baptized. The religious aspect of my mother’s country became very prominent. I discovered an animist side to the Guinean culture which is based on people’s respect for it. I had been exposed to the supernatural part of Guinean culture since I was a child. I visited ‘marabouts’ (some type of witches) and this time around took part in many ceremonies and rituals. For me it was important to do this work, because now I feel more aware of this situation; the existence of a parallel world and the world of spirits.

From the series Ya Kala Ben
Copyright Namsa Leuba

You said many Guineans thought the act of photographing these ceremonial acts and objects was sacrilegious. What was it like to make this work under such scrutiny? 
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.  To be able to enter a sacred forest, normally reserved for the few initiated, I received, after long negotiations, an “express” introduction which after all took a day to complete. To be serious and quiet. Most of time my subjects were stressed because they are not used to being a model and being photographed.

 They know what they represent; they know they have to respect the holy tools. That is why I had to work very quickly all the time. 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. 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 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.

From the series The African Queens
Copyright Namsa Leuba

What do you think a viewer who is unfamiliar with Guinean cosmology gains by seeing it set in a new context through your lens?
I am particularly interested in fetishes. My approach is to separate those sacred statuettes from their religious context in order to immortalize them in a Western framework. They are ritualistic tools that I have animated by giving them an unusual meaning in the Guinean context.

Your more recent work (The African Queens) also incorporates objects and regalia. Are these images more than fashion?
Yes, I was inspired by African statuettes, but there is another context and another meaning derived through the language of fashion. I always expose myself through the objective. I use my experience to visualize a photo and get the full understanding of an image. When I’m making work, what’s important is to keep my own vision. I like working in fashion but with a fine art approach. I always try to do something fresh.

From the series Ya Kala Ben
Copyright Namsa Leuba

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on flags of sacrifices, Guinean Swiss flags and on different identities. You will see more soon in May 2013. I will have an exhibition in NYC at the beginning of 2014 and then I will be in South Africa for 5 months to work on an ongoing project. I’ve also received a Pro Helvetia (CH) artist residency.

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