Namsa Leuba’s new photographic series reimagines the rites and rituals of the vodum religion in Benin

Namsa Leuba’s latest body of work, Weke, conjures up new narratives around the animist traditions of vodum (voodoo) in the Republic of Benin. The artist travelled through the region, which is the birthplace of voodoo, to meet priests and participate in ceremonies. She then cast her models locally and created elaborate costumes and props that helped her to construct a fantastical photographic series imbued with the symbols and rituals of this ancient religion. Her characters strike simple, strong poses in the twilight with colour and photo manipulation adding to the divine ambiance.

“The basic tenet of voodoo stipulates the continuity of all things both visible and invisible in the universe”

“The basic tenet of voodoo stipulates the continuity of all things both visible and invisible in the universe, a belief in the interconnectedness of the living, spirit and natural world,” Leuba explains. “My interest is based on my dual heritage, from a Guinean mother and a Swiss father. Growing up, I was exposed to the animist belief system of my mother’s family in Guinea, which was in stark contrast to my upbringing in Switzerland. These practices served as a vital point of connection to my ancestral roots. At the same time, the practices were exotic, stemming from an ideology that sits apart from Western belief systems.”

These themes are recurrent in Leuba’s most notable projects, including 2011’s Ya Kala Ben and 2016’s Inyakanyaka, through which she explores Western perspectives of African identities and the politics of the gaze going back to 19th century colonial photography of ‘the dark continent’. With Weke, she also questions the assumption that the world can be documented and verified through a lens or the naked eye.

“My images attempt to portray the concept of voodoo that cannot be depicted visually. The camera isolates cultural practices and transforms them into visual forms. Instead, I construct my images with the awareness of the cultural gaze, of the fragmented information that one receives when tradition is alienated from its source,” she says. “Using graphic elements inspired by paintings, I revisit the symbols of ancestral belief from a contemporary perspective. Through the adaptation of myths or fetishes attributable to ‘the other’, it is also the West’s view on these symbols that has been put to the test.”

The highly sought after emerging artist has exhibited worldwide, including with Nataal and Red Hook Labs at our 2016 New African Photography exhibition. Read our previous interview with Namsa Leuba here.

Words Helen Jennings

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Published on 10/01/2018