Photographer Namsa Leuba's Work Upends African Genres And Stereotypes

Her docufiction portraits toy with Western fantasies of African life.
Reading time 8 minutes

Namsa Leuba is an unapologetic thief. “I take what I want from each culture and each thing that I experience in my life,” she says. Indeed, the photographer has made a lifelong habit of syncretism—hand-picking traditions and practices from every society, religion, place, or person that her quick-witted lens encounters. Her compositions are cleverly conjured deceits grounded, at least for now, in the heart of Africa. Each image plunges the eye into an imagined world while evoking the commanding feel of photojournalism. This is docufiction at its trickiest with exaggerated voodoo rituals, invented acts of statuette worship, and tattooed acrobatic spirits plodding through the tall grass on stilts.

Born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and a Guinean mother, Leuba studied photography at ECAL, the University of Art and Design in Lausanne, and currently splits her time between Africa, Europe, and French Polynesia. At the moment she works in the garden of her rented bungalow in Tahiti, pumping Pink Floyd into the trees for laidback vibes. When we spoke over Whatsapp, Leuba had been trekking through the Andes for days and had just arrived, totally exhausted and with banged-up legs, at a little hotel in Lima. Her grandmother had passed away just before the trip began, but navigating dangerously narrow passes with her head (literally) in the clouds had helped Leuba to slowly make sense of things.

When European photographers trudged through West Africa with their clunky cameras in the 19th century, their contrived documentary shots of “the natives” were often used as a tool for proving African primitivism and consequent justification for colonial domination. But in reality, many of these images were staged to deceptively portray Africans as white Europeans wanted to see them: as savage, weak, exotic, and backwards. Leuba critically responds to this history by creating her own staged portraits, forcing viewers to question personal perceptions of fact versus fantasy.

When I ask her why she didn’t choose to go the documentary route with her own artistic practice, she retorts matter-of-factly, “Because a picture is not a reality.” Rather, Leuba insists, “The viewer sometimes thinks I’m just documenting what I see, but I actually make everything for the image myself. In this way, I am playing with the viewer. The personalities are not real. I even create new deities. Some of them are real, some are from my own imagination.”

When she attends art fairs and has to chitchat with strangers, the topic of her identity inevitably arises, with someone questioning if she feels more African or European, and all too often referring to Africa as a single country rather than a diverse continent in the process. She prefers to tell people, “I’m just from the world.”  While her father was raised Protestant but developed a passion for Buddhist teachings, Leuba’s maternal side practices Animism in Muslim-majority Guinea. She explains: “I am from a sacred society of fetishers (Animist priests) and hunters. When we used to visit Guinea I would always participate in their rituals and ceremonies. It is really just part of my culture.”

In particular, she was moved by the way that people prayed to have their wishes for fertility, love, wealth, or health fulfilled by invoking handmade wooden or clay statuettes resembling human figures. “As a child, I was always attracted to the idea that you can bring these statues to life just with the power of your mind. They can also be animated by a traditional witch doctor. The thing that interested me is the concept of taking something invisible and making it visible.”

Like the portrait artist Kehinde Wiley, who has often cast his subjects from urban street corners, then wielded his paintbrush to represent them in the authoritative stances of classical European portraits, Leuba discovers all her subjects while on location for a shoot, most often in busy African markets or dusty village squares.

She spends hours in advance sketching out each work. There is nothing candid about the photographs, though sometimes a subject will flip-flop their persona once the shutter begins to click, either choking up self-consciously or summoning an unexpectedly wild joy.

Together with a larger body of work, Leuba’s seminal series Ya Kala Ben was shown in Lagos in 2017 at Art Twenty One as part of Ethnomodern; the photographer’s first solo show at the hip contemporary gallery. It was also exhibited earlier this year as part of the inaugural edition of 1-54, the contemporary African art fair in Marrakech. Shooting in Guinea Conakry in 2011, Leuba approached strangers on the street and persuaded them to pose for her as physical manifestations of invincible immortal beings. Her presence caused a certain amount of alarm to some locals. “It’s a delicate situation,” she admits. At one point, she was even detained by police because the topic of the shoot was considered sacrilegious, but her mother and uncle smooth-talked the authorities out of locking her up in jail.

In Ya Kala Ben, subjects are deliberately portrayed as Westerners’ might expect to see them—with the richness of Animist cosmology and ritual observance translating as so constrictive that subjects are often contorted in its practice, sometimes appearing faceless altogether or with an averted gaze. This is in great contrast to NGL (a snappy acronym for Next Generation Lagos), produced during a residency at Art Twenty One in 2015, in which Leuba collaborated with eight Nigerian fashion designers and shot studio portraits of charismatic 20-something Lagos kids staring down the camera with vivid slashes of makeup on their faces—like modern-day tribal paint. She says, “I made this series to create something fresh that shows the energy and dynamism of young Lagos. It’s very colorful and the young generation is making it into such an interesting cultural scene.”

One portrait, Kenny, went viral, appearing in a bevy of arts publications and online platforms. Kenny is the embodiment of young ambition and brash audacity in today’s Lagos. The sitter gazes unflinchingly at the camera, carrying a fringed yellow blouse and long twists with tremendous confidence. Her subtle black eye serves as a kind of warning not to mess with this woman’s plans.

"The viewer sometimes thinks I’m just documenting what I see, but I actually make everything for the image myself."

Leuba is no voyeuristic artist who just parachutes into a new place long enough to shoot, then takes an air-conditioned Lexus to the nearest luxury resort in time to recuperate over happy hour. To prepare for her most recent series Weke, which focuses on Western assumptions of voodoo, she spent two months in Benin meeting different voodoo priests and participating in rituals and ceremonies.

While voodoo typically pops up in Western media in association with the human rights issue of albinos being hunted and sacrificed like animals, that practice is not part of the general faith’s belief system. In contrast, in Benin in 2016 large groups of voodoo adherents came together to pray for national peace. The diversity of values and practices related to Voodoo is something that has yet to be communicated to outsiders. Leuba is oddly vague about what she observed during her time in the country, only sharing, “I can’t explain in detail. You have to be there in real life and be accepted by the priest to see what takes place.” Weke incorporates some elements of lived voodoo such as indigo powder, animal offerings, and exorcism, but the scenes themselves were of concocted by Leuba’s and jive off Western fears and stigmas related to the religion.

When it came time to shoot, she hired local assistants to find people willing to pose. One particularly muscular portrait features an adolescent who has been transformed into a living, breathing voodoo offering tray. “This was shot in the North of Benin on a banana plantation right as night was falling,” she recalls. This boy is wearing a hat containing offerings, or gifts for the gods. In voodoo…when you’re going to see the witch doctor, you always bring a bottle of alcohol…to give to the gods. There are also chickens for the sacrifice.” The bloodied jackknives hanging around the youth’s neck and the twine caging his pelvis play with unsettling clichés of voodoo’s entanglement with human sacrifice and the dark arts.

Over the course of our conversation, Leuba clarifies three times with some paranoia that she does not practice voodoo; that the Animism practiced by her family is totally unrelated. However, there are some very real comparisons to be made between the way Leuba sets up a shot and how a voodoo priest prepares to make a sacrificial offering. There are junctures in the series where her work borders on the psychedelic, a blurring of light that takes place when one is so tightly wound up in the performance of a ritual that the earthly dimension blends with unseen spiritual plains in a delirious dance. She concedes, “When I am producing each body of work, it’s the equivalent of creating my own ceremonies. Putting it together is like committing my own act of magic.”

related posts

Recommended posts for you