Interview with Namsa Leuba: African Identity Through Western Eyes

Damien & Kenny, NGL Series by Namsa Leuba
Damien, Right: Kenny
from the series NGL
Fibre pigment print on Dibond

Namsa Leuba is a truly international artist. Born in 1982 to a Guinean mother and a Swiss father, she has since studied and exhibited all over the world. Since receiving her master’s in art direction at the University of Art and Design in Lausanne, she has earned recognition for her photography in Guinea, South Africa, Nigeria, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Spain, France, Belgium, South Korea, and elsewhere. We spoke to Leuba about how she used this work to “start a dialogue with [her] origins.”

Leuba’s research of the past four years has focused on understanding and portraying African identity through Western eyes. Her series NGL (“New Generation Lagos”), featured at the 2016 Armory Show and here in the Wild issue, mixes the people and patterns of Lagos, Nigeria with a Western eye for high-fashion aesthetics. By moving in between countries, Leuba explains, her perspective on creativity and culture continue to evolve. “I continue to participate in ceremonies and rituals in my country,” she says. “[And] in other countries I discovered other beliefs and practices.”

Cocktail Series by Namsa Leuba
Untitled I
from the series Cocktail
Fuji Crystal Archive Matte print reverse mounted on acrylic

AWT: Your work is focused on “African identity through Western eyes.” What inspired you to take on this topic through your work?

Namsa Leuba: My mother is Muslim and animist, and my father is a Protestant, although I’ve never been baptized. I became very interested in the religious aspect of my mother’s country—on the animistic side to Guinean culture, which is based on people’s respect for [nature]. I had already been exposed to the supernatural side of Guinea when I was a child. I visited marabouts [holy people or mystics] when I was younger and [during my recent research] took part in many ceremonies and rituals. For me it was important to do this work, because I now feel more aware of the existence of a parallel world, the world of spirits.

Strength & Owesifazana by Namsa Leuba
from the series Zulu Kids
Fibre pigment print on Dibond

AWT: Our theme for this issue is “Wild.” How does your work respond to the commonly held Western stereotype that African culture is wild or exotic?

Namsa Leuba: “Exotic” means that which is strange or foreign to another. My work can be exotic depending on the position of the viewer—whether or not his or her culture is foreign to my work.

AWT: Much of your recent work is vividly colored and composed with so much attention to detail. Can you talk about composing a shot, how you approach color, pattern, and texture?

Namsa Leuba: I have chosen to focus on the invisible emotions that photographs can make me feel. I use my experience to visualize a photo and fully understand the image: I imagine all my photographs beforehand. Before shooting, so as not to waste time, I draw the picture I visualized.

At the same time, the art of photography allows me to externalize my emotions and my past, telling my story through different shots.

This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about and by women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and our poetry section.