African Brightness & Swiss Modesty: A Conversation with Swiss Photographer Namsa Leuba

Namsa Leuba is a photographer and art director with Swiss and Guinean roots. Her very first solo exhibition in the United States is currently on display at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC. The exhibition titled “Crossed Looks” is a retrospective of Leuba’s work and features over 90 photos from her projects in Guinea, South Africa, Nigeria, Benin, and Tahiti. Curated by Joseph Gergel, longtime friend of Leuba and native of South Carolina, the show runs through December 11, 2021. Leuba is known for her unique images visualizing African identity seen through the Western eyes, as she grew up in Switzerland.

In a conversation with the Consulate General of Switzerland in Atlanta, Namsa Leuba talked about her exhibition in Charleston, the experience of immersing herself in distant cultures, and the return to exploring her Swiss heritage during the pandemic.

What does it mean to you to have your very first solo exhibition in the United States?

It is very exciting of course. I think it is a big opportunity for me to show my work, in particular also to the African-American community after what has happened with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. I think it is great. 10 years ago, I did a re-enactment of the Black Panthers, and it shows that that work is still very relevant today.

When did you know that you wanted to become a photographer?

It was in my early 20s, when I studied at the School of Applied Arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds. I took a photography lesson and realized that this is what I wanted to do. After graduating, I went on to study Visual Communication in the Photography Section at ECAL (École cantonale d’art de Lausanne). Photography is the perfect medium for me to express myself. I find it true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

You have photographed in a variety of faraway countries over the last few years. How much time do you spend in these countries and how do you get acquainted with their culture?

Most of the time, I stay between 2 months and 3 years in one place. It is not like I just go there to take photos and then come back after a few days. Spending time meeting people and getting totally immersed in the local culture is very important. I speak with a lot of people and also practice rituals since my work often includes religious aspects. It is crucial to me to understand my subject, which certainly requires a lot of time. In the smaller villages in Africa where neither French nor English is spoken, I also have an assistant with me who helps by translating the local dialects.

What determines the focus and destination for your projects?

With my first project in Guinea, it was the interest in my religion on my mother’s side. In South Africa, I think it was the complex history of Apartheid that appealed to me. And in Benin, it was the voodoo. Africa is not a country, but a continent and we don’t have the same perspective from East to West and North to South. The cultures are very different, and for me that is extremely interesting. Equally diverse are the reactions I get for my work in the various countries.

What are the reactions you get from the local communities where you conduct your artistic work?

The reactions vary greatly depending on the audience. For instance, when I was in Guinea, I had some violent reactions because my work was perceived as a sacrilege. In my photography, I don’t reflect the reality, but rather one perception of it. I like playing with exoticism, with stereotypes and reinventing things into something contemporary to give it another authenticity. What I create is called “docu-fiction” because it doesn’t exist. In this particular case, I took an artifact form the Guinean cosmogony and I decontextualized the artifact to put in a different context. Because it is about religion I can understand if people feel agitated if they don’t know the global artistic thought behind it. As a result, it is always important to be with the right people who can explain the circumstance and intention of the art project. Beyond that, I think it also helps that I am of African heritage myself, which allows me to experiment a bit further.

How does your Guinean and your Swiss heritage inform your work?

My African heritage definitely informs my work in everything that speaks about rituals, experiences on the field, traditions, and religion. Additionally, I would say that my African side also shines through when we look at the use of color and brightness in my work. What makes my Swiss heritage noticeable is my rigorousness and my modesty. I think being reserved and humble is a characteristic all Swiss people share.

After several projects on the continent of Africa you shifted your focus to French Polynesia for your last project. What is next on your agenda?

Yes, for French Polynesia, I wanted to do something different, to experience something new and to meet other people, another culture. Although, the project still centered on my overarching theme of identity. I think that opened my mind to do something different. In addition, I have been very limited recently with travel due to the pandemic. I was confronted with the question, what I could do in Europe. In doing so, I focused a bit more on my Swiss origins and my European side. I also worked with La Prairie on a commission and this summer on a project for the New York Times. Besides, I have been experimenting with some other mediums such as tapestry. In 2022, I will have an exhibition in Switzerland, and my goal is to come up with something new instead of just showing African pictures. It is very interesting since this is a bit of a new phase of my life.

Visit the website of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art for more information about the show “Crossed Looks” in Charleston and a virtual experience of the exhibit.

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