Namsa Leuba’s kaleidoscopic photographs explore the politics of the gaze – Dazed

In 2011, Namsa Leuba traveled to Guinea Conkary, her mother’s ancestral hometown, to embark upon Ya Kala Ben (Guinean for “Crossed Looks”), her first long-term photography project that explored “the representation of Africa identity in the Western imagination”. As a Guinean-Swiss woman born and raised in the West, Leuba was neither “either/or” but both at the same time. Standing on the outside, rather than in the center of her respective cultures, gave her a wholly original vantage point, one that has informed her photography practice over the past decade.
“My Swiss heritage gave me an aesthetic sensibility for making pictures, and my African heritage and ancestors gave me a spiritual form for my work,” Leuba tells Dazed. “Depending on where we are situated in the world, we can have different perceptions. With photography we can say much more than a thousand words. It’s the perfect medium for me. My pictures are not the reality, you know, but expressions of my imagination.”
Liberated from constructs of rational thought, Leuba moves gracefully between the liminal space of fiction and fact, creating fantastical photographs that combine elements of documentary, fashion, and performance with singular aplomb. With publication of her first monograph, Crossed Looks (Damiani) and first solo exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Leuba brings together five major bodies of personal work made over the past decade in Guinea, Benin, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tahiti, as well as selections of commercial and editorial work.
With each project Leuba displays an extraordinary ability to innovate, synthesise, and articulate a new visual language so that no one project looks quite like another. This adaptability lies at the heart of Leuba’s embrace of ambiguity, perfectly aligned with the fluidity of nature itself. Our desire to label and name is a cultural construct, one that is ever shifting depending on the speaker’s vantage point.
For Leuba, nothing is fixed; it flows like water, mixing and melding effortlessly into a kaleidoscopic burst of shape, colour, texture, and iconography. In her hands, the camera becomes an alchemical tool, both subverting and reclaiming the language of photography to mesmerising effect. With each body of work, Leuba effortlessly implodes the assumptions instilled by the longstanding production, distribution, and preservation of a white cisheterosexual male gaze. 
In the West, photography has been presented presented under the guise of factual reportage by self-proclaimed “objective” practitioners who somehow believe their biases are in fact neutral. A construct of the power structure designed to inform how we see ourselves and others, this perspective and its attendant visual language – expertly deconstructed by John Berger in the seminal 1972 book and TV series, Ways of Seeing – has reached its logical conclusion with the triumphant failure of modernist thought. Although reactionary and equally doomed, the postmodernist impulse has consistently called Western paradigms into question, making space for a panoply of perspectives previously excluded, marginalised, or misrepresented.
”With photography we can say much more than a thousand words. It’s the perfect medium for me. My pictures are not the reality, you know, but expressions of my imagination” – Namsa Leuba
With Crossed Looks, Leuba stands at the vanguard of a new era that explores the politics of the gaze, which she describes as “who is looking, who is being looked at, and the medium of which this looking occurs”. She explains, “I am experimenting with different things. I am inspired by the cultures and the countries I visit – but after that, I like to create my own style and my own vision. I mix a lot of different cultures to give a new birth and other perspectives in my work.”
With her first series, Ya Kala Ben, Leuba set forth to give human form to ritual wooden statues used to create connections between the physical and spiritual worlds in animist practices. Creating costumes and props fashioned from rope, sticks, and nylon, she cast models she met on the street to embody ideals of fertility, strength, power, richness, and hope, and posed them in natural landscapes as spirit made flesh. Some Guineans found Leuba’s effort to depict the sacred amid the profane as blasphemous, leading to her arrest during the production of these photographs.
“I received some violent responses to this work,” says Leuba. Despite the response, she remained undeterred in her pursuit of understanding. In 2014, she traveled to South African for a six-month residency, where she worked within the Khosian, Zulu, Lesotho, and Ndbele communities for a variety of works that explores a range of contemporary political and cultural issues.
For the series Zulu Kids, Leuba transported the West African animist beliefs of her mother’s land to South Africa, creating her own fictionalised “tradition”. Here, she cast local children as ritual figurines, posing them atop a wooden log that she carried from village to village, and giving them names like Power, Passports, Patience, Struggle, Hope, and Strength.
In 2017, Leuba traveled to the Republic of Benin to create photographs inspired by the Vodun (Voodoo) religion for the series Weke (“the visible and invisible universe, all things created, living, breathing or not”). Working in the forest at night, Leuba translated the teachings of mystic teachers into images that reveal the limitations of photographic language to penetrate the majestic realm of spirit.
”I am inspired by the cultures and the countries I visit – but after that, I like to create my own style and my own vision. I mix a lot of different cultures to give a new birth and other perspectives in my work” – Namsa Leuba
For Leuba, the relationship between style and self-expression is an integral part of identity, one that she consistently constructs and deconstructs in the creation of art. For each series, she creates a new visual language to examine Western dialectics, while simultaneously revealing the presumptions and restrictions of such paradigms. Using fashion as a bridge between cultures, Leuba offers a daring new iconography of beauty.
“As a child, I went to Africa to see my mother’s family, so it has always been part of my life. I was very interested in exploring that side, and wanting to know more. It’s very spiritual and gives my work a different layer of experience,” she says. For the 2011 series Cocktail and 2012 series The African Queens, Leuba embraces the archetype of “queen” in all its campy delight, reveling in the subversion of stale clichés and tired stereotypes to reclaim the image of hero, prophet, and mystic on its own terms.
In her most recent series, Illusions, Leuba traveled to Tahiti and lived there for two years to create a series of images inspired by the work of French post Impressionism painter Paul Gauguin, who moved to the island after it had been colonised to escape what he described as “everything that is artificial and conventional”. But despite how far Gauguin traveled, he unpacked the presumption that of the two nations, Tahiti was the more “primitive” society. 
Gauguin and his ilk cast Polynesian women as their sexual ideal: exotic, subservient, and natural – the quintessential “other” ripe for fetishism. In Illusions, Leuba looks at the myth of the vahine (Polynesian for woman) as it is connected with body, land, and soul. Staging the scenes with painterly precision, Leuba casts non-binary figures of the mahu (femme) and rae-rae (transgender woman) in this role, restoring them to their place in the pantheon after being vilified by Christian missionaries. 
In reclaiming the “other”, Leuba centers those pushed to the margins and offers a space for belonging that affirms, inspires, and delights in equal part. All too often, we’ve adjusted ourselves to fit the “norm” rather than recognize that we, as outsiders, hold the power to redefine these terms and become the change we want to see in the world.
Namsa Leuba: Crossed Looks is on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, through December 11, 2021