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.