As Nataal's New African Photography exhibition opens at Red Hook Labs, we speak to Namsa Leuba about the cultural crossroads found in her work


2015 was  breath-taking year for Namsa Leuba. The emerging photographer exhibited at Art Twenty One in Lagos and at LagosPhoto; at the Saatchi and Tiwani galleries and 1:54 art fair in London; at Photoquai in Paris; at the Guggenheim Bilbao; the Tokyo International Photo Festival and Mòsso in Brussels, to name but a few.  All this while graduating from her Masters at the University of Art and Design Lausaane and releasing her recent body of work, Inyakanyaka. Perhaps her most accomplished and powerful project yet, it’s drawn yet more attention to the artist as she continues her deeply personal exploration of the cultural appropriations between Africa and the West. This year she's debuted a new series New Generation Lagos at the Armory Show and now she joins the line-up at Nataal's group show at Red Hook Labs.

“There is a great richness in being of mixed cultures,” says Leuba, whose father is Swiss and mother Guinean. “I am an African-European, born in Switzerland. My parents instilled in me both cultures and shared their history. When I began studying photography in 2008 I knew that I wanted to deepen my knowledge of my African heritage and decided to focus my work on African identity through Western eyes.”


For her first significant series, 2011’s Ya Kala Ben, she travelled to Guinea Conakry to understand the local animist beliefs. “I had already been exposed to the supernatural side of Guinea as a child by visiting marabouts and this time around I took part in many ceremonies and rituals. For me it was important to feel more aware of the existence of a parallel world, the world of spirits.” Working closely with the community, she took the iconography of fetishes and statuettes and recontextualised them through her meticulous choice of poses and people. “I was interested in the construction and deconstruction of the body, as well as the depiction of the invisible. I studied ritual artefacts common to Guineans that are considered the roots of the living. In this way, I sought to touch the untouchable.”

"Photography allows me to exteriorise
my emotions and my past, telling my story
in some kind of syncretism"

Leuba returned to these themes last year during a seven-month residency in South Africa with the Swiss Arts Council, during which time she shot Inyakanyaka (meaning Disorder in Zulu). Encompassing four series - Zulu Kids, Ndebele pattern, Khoi San and Kingdom of Mountain, it continues her interest in African cosmogony. This time she focused on the youth. The colours are rich, the sky is a burning blue and her tender subjects are often perched aloft on makeshift pedestals. In Zulu Kids, they raise Amandla fists, echoing the resistance against Apartheid that conquered before their births, while in Koi San they are armed with both bow and arrow and crochet horns – poised, regal, strong.

“My models really enjoyed acting in an imaginary scene. It was exciting for them to not be asked to pose like a tribe in front of colonial people,” she recalls. “I’ve tried to go out into a spiritual territory, beyond the plasticity of the immediate, modern world around us.” This series turns the tensions and misconceptions of ethnographic photography on their head to create an ambiguous visual journal that expresses the potency and energy of her subjects.


Elsewhere, Leuba’s output spans fashion photography - African Queens, Cocktail and New Generation Africa all use the language of magazine editorials to summon up prophets, warriors and goddesses. She has also delved into architecture, landscape, abstraction and reportage, each mode of representation interweaving to express multiple points of social collision through her curious and sensitive interventions. “I have chosen to focus on the invisibility of the emotions that photographs can make me feel,” she says. “The art of photography allows me to exteriorise my emotions and my past, telling my story in some kind of syncretism.”

Nataal: New African Photography at Red Hook Labs,
133-135 Imlay St, Brooklyn, New York 11231
On view: 7-15 May, 2016

Words Helen Jennings

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