The work of Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba (b. 1982) plays with the viewer’s perception of reality. She makes staged photos of people wearing costumes that consist of artefacts from different cultures. While most of her work was made in Africa, Leuba grew up in Switzerland with a Guinean mother and a Swiss father. In this interview, we talk about her latest series Zulu Kids, misleading the viewer and getting arrested during a photo shoot.
You say that your photos look at African identity through Western eyes. How does that work?
I was born in Switzerland, I grew up in Switzerland and I did all of my education in Switzerland. That means that the way I perceive the world around me, and my sensitivity for things was developed here in Switzerland. So even though I have a double heritage, I spent much more time in Europe than in Africa. I could never say that I look through African eyes, I look mostly through Western eyes. However, in my work I try to reconcile my double heritage.
What does that look like, for example in your latest series Zulu Kids? Zulu Kids is a series that was shot in South Africa. There’s a complex history in South Africa, and I wanted to do a cultural criticism, but in fact I did so by mixing that complexity even further up. So what I did was, I gathered artefacts in Guinea and then asked kids in South Africa to wear them. I decided to work with kids, to give the image a feeling of innocence. Yet I also added elements from Guinea. The way the kids pose, like statues, and the kind of faces they wear, like masks – all of that isn’t from South Africa, it’s from Guinea. So what I’m showing is what I think Zulu kids in South Africa could look like, which is of course not what they really look like. My work was very much welcomed in South Africa, which I found interesting, because when I was working in Guinea, my way of working didn’t go down well. I received some bad feedback and I was even arrested by the police.
You were arrested?
Yes, it happened while I was doing my first work in Guinea, Ya Kala Ben. They didn’t like that I was messing with their rituals, they saw my photos as sacrilege. In Guinean culture, prayers are believed to be able to turn a statue in a living creature, but I did the opposite: I used living people to pose like statues. People told me I couldn’t take pictures like that.
Did the idea that your project came across as violent give you doubts about it?
No, because I knew what I was doing. It was interesting to see this kind of interaction, I really hadn’t expected it. What probably also played a role is that, in Guinea, being an artist doesn’t really exist. So I often had to pay in order to be allowed to make a photo somewhere, and I also paid my models. They don’t understand the way I take pictures. For them, taking a picture is usually something you do during a celebration. They’re like: Why would you want to take a picture like this? So I have to explain that I’m doing a photo project and they shouldn’t do the things they usually do, they shouldn’t smile. Photography is not a profession there, it isn’t as developed as much as it is in Nigeria, South Africa or Mali. Even though I did meet video artists and painters in Guinea, just no photographers.
How do you find your models?
I like working with people that I meet in the streets, so every time I go to another town or city, I do my casting. I pick a few models, and, if they’re kids, I speak with the parents. Sometimes, even a shy person is not a shy model at all, and the other way around, a person with a big mouth may get really shy during a shoot. I like it that they aren’t professional. Yet I direct them, because I already have an idea what I want the photo to look like. Before each sitting, I draw. This way I get more inspiration and I know which objects I need to buy at the market to finalise their costumes.
Why did you decide to use staged photography to explore mixed identities?
One of my early series was on The Black Panther movement. I was always inspired by people who have lived through struggle so I wanted to do a re-enactment in Switzerland of this movement from the US. I only used Swiss-African models and staged a few moments from the Black Panther history. Sometimes I used a lot of grain to make the photo look blurry. When you see it, you could think that the picture was taken forty years ago. But no, I took it five years ago.
I know that I look at things in a certain way, and that I have prejudices.
Then later when I started photographing in Guinea, I did some documentary photography. I was living in the woods with a hunter taking photos of rituals. But even then, it was to a certain degree staged photography, since the ceremonies that I took pictures of were done especially for me. And in every statue, there was a piece of my hair or my clothes. So my influence was in it quite clearly. I like to manipulate reality, and to be on the borderline.
Why would you manipulate reality?
A picture is not reality, voilà. My photos speak about ethnocentrism and clichés but also about ambiguity, how we all think in clichés to a certain extent. I know that I look at things in a certain way, and that I have prejudices. In my photos I like to address these. So I take photos from my own imagination, but I know that it isn’t reality. I know I didn’t find things like this, I constructed the picture myself.
People, even in South Africa, ask me: “Ah, you found the Zulu kids like that? They were wearing these artefacts?” Also in London, or here in Switzerland, they believe that’s just the way these kids dress, whereas it was me, the photographer, who asked the kids to put on these things. So my work works! I think that it’s very interesting, how we imagine black people and African culture to be. I want to draw attention to this, to how we want to see things.