“There is a great richness in being of mixed cultures.” ~ Namsa Leuba
Born in 1982 to a Guinean mother and Swiss father, Namsa Leuba is an African-European who has had exposure to both cultures and histories. However, having grown up in Switzerland, she wanted to deepen her knowledge of her African heritage and identity. She began studying photography in 2008 and graduated with a Master in Art Direction at ECAL (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne). Since then, she has gained international recognition for her ability to combine performance, fashion and documentary to question clichés in which African culture is often associated with in Western countries.
Using photography, she’s been able to explore her cultural heritage; from statuettes and masquerades to rituals and ceremonies. She then processes these findings through fashion and design sensibilities, giving careful attention to gestures, colours and props. The result being an aesthetic that can easily feature in an editorial but also start a conversation on perception. As she elaborates in an interview with Nataal, “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.” We take a look at some of her captivating projects thus far:
As a child, Namsa was exposed to her mother’s family’s animist belief system. To her, they represented the connection to her ancestral roots in Guinea. They were also a sharp and exotic contrast to her European upbringing. Aware of the impact of the cultural gaze, especially when based on fragmented information that is alienated from source of the tradition, she produced the series Weke. In the local language of Benin, Weke means “the visible and invisible universe, all things created, living, breathing or not”. For this project, she collaborated with practitioners from Benin; which is considered the birthplace of the faith. Through Weke, she was able to challenge the warped impression Europe has of the animist tradition of Voodoo. She further elaborated in an interview with It’s Nice That, “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.”
Inspired by the energy of Lagos, she produced ‘Next Generation Lagos’ in 2015 during her residency with Art Twenty One. Namsa intentionally collaborated with young Nigerian fashion designers and models for NGL to highlight the innovation and creativity of the city’s youth. Shot in studio, NGL captures the vibrancy, chaos and determination of the city through a surrealist filter.
This project was created for Edun, a fashion brand founded by Ali Hewson and Bono. Tonköma (which means “people stand up”) was inspired by the Nyamou in Guinea. According to an interview in i-d Vice, these “devils” – which are depicted as a group of stilted masquerades – protect the holy forest from bad spirits and communicate with the ancestors. The fabrics used in the rooftop photo-shoot, taken in Johannesburg, bare similarity to those found these forests of Guinea.
For most creatives, just having the opportunity to work with a known title/magazine is a wish come true. Namsa not only got the space to feature her work, but also had creative control over the project. She created this high fashion representation of African statuettes for The Cut. This New York Magazine sent her a trunk of designer clothes and gave her carte blanche on the theme and feel of the editorial. Shot in Paris, she selected models from off the street to channel attributes associated with African Queens such as supremacy, protection, fecundity and vivacity.
According to the Lagos Photo Festival this series “infuses fashion and portraiture to comment on the representation of the female body in Africa today”. Created for WAD Magazine in 2012, the series explores female archetypes that are fantastical, fictional and commercially viable. The use of colourful backgrounds and props such as porcelain leopards, feathered headdresses and bull horns examines the cultural imaginary of “Africa”.
Christian Lacroix’s 2016-2017 Autumn/Winter fashion collection lookbook.
Namsa’s ability to remove statuettes from religious context and incorporate them into a Western framework spoke to the brand. This led to the collaboration between Christian Lacroix and Namsa to integrate subtle African accents full of mystic energy into the collection.
Lady Dior Seen By Namsa Leuba
Dior invited a collective of artists to reinterpret the classic “Lady Dior” bag, which was originally designed in 1995. The nine artists were John Giorno, Lee Bul, Friedrich Kunath, Spencer Sweeney, Jack Pierson, Jamilla Okubo, Hong Hao, Betty Mariani David Wiseman and Namsa Leuba. Namsa worked on two designs that drew inspiration from colourful and graphic paintings of Ndebele people living in Zimbabwe and South Africa. It took more than 300 hours to make the bags by hand. While one bag was woven in the manner of old African textiles, the other worked with fabric, mink and beads.
Namsa’s work appreciates different symbols and codes from Western and African cultures to help her communicate with her heritage. As she defined it in an interview with Vogue, “I try to reconcile in a form of cultural syncretism these two identities in permanent struggle and at the same time I question the ambiguity of ethnocentrism.” Because she is biracial, she is often considered too African to be Swiss or too European to be from Africa. This state of being considered ‘other’ is a struggle many African artists face. In Namsa’s case, she chose not to view her situation as confinement or exclusion. Rather, as a unique positioning that has helped mould her award-winning artistic expression.