Namsa Leuba, Crossed Looks

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Damiani Editore (here). Softcover, 176 pages, with 132 color and black and white photographs. Includes essays by Joseph Gergel, Emmanuel Iduma, and Mary Trent. Design by Maximage. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Crossed Looks is the first monograph by the Swiss-Guinean artist Namsa Leuba, surveying her five major series created over the past ten years in Benin, Guinea, Nigeria, South Africa, and more recently, Tahiti. The retrospective catalog was published on the occasion of the artist’s first solo museum exhibition at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Crossed Looks considers how Leuba’s practice explores the representation of African identity and the cultural Other in the Western imagination.

Leuba’s artistic practice is rooted in her dual heritage and the experience of growing up between Switzerland and Guinea. Her father is Swiss and her mother is Guinean, and she was born and raised in Switzerland, where she lived until she turned 27. “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.” In her practice, she brings together documentary photography with the staging of fashion shoots, and she describes her stylized body of work as “primarily docu-fiction, with a fashion aesthetic.” Through staging and costuming, she reflects realities “made invisible when viewed through a Western colonial lens.”

Crossed Looks is a softcover book with flaps. The three essays included in the publication discuss different approaches to Leuba’s work. The essay titled “Shifting Gazes” by Joseph Gergel, the guest curator of the exhibition, provides background on Leuba’s practice and then guides the visual flow of the book, as he discusses each of the series. Two other essays appear at the very end, providing a coda to our viewing of the work: Emmanuel Iduma considers Leuba’s aesthetic choices and Mary Trent reflects on the artist’s latest series. In the book, the essays are printed on thick brownish paper. 

The introduction to Leuba’s photography starts with her first long term project. Titled Ya Kala Ben (meaning “crossed looks”), it traces her heritage and references Guinean traditions and customs. Leuba spent years studying Guinean cosmology and rituals, and her work brings together Guinean spirituality with her own personal aesthetic. The images were created in her mother’s ancestral hometown of Conakry, Guinea, and her staged photos personify ritual statues in human form. The photographs capture figures wrapped in odd costumes and photographed in natural settings; one image shows a person dressed, head to toe, in a green patterned fabric and shot against orange rock. 

She continues to examine this theme of ritual in her next body of work titled Zulu Kids, shot during her residency in South Africa. She gathered artifacts in Guinea and asked local children to wear them. The photos show kids posing on top of a wooden log, as they gesture first and thumb up, and making symbolic actions like burning passports. In these images, Leuba has created a fictionalized “tradition” to show the re-appropriation of cultural and social identities of Black people after the years of apartheid.

In 2017, Leuba produced her series Weke while in Benin, the birthplace of Vodun (or Voodoo) religion, a practice often misunderstood in western culture. She traveled around the country to meet priests and observed many rituals. She then worked with models to translate these rituals and experiences into striking portraits. In one of the images, a person wears a hat decorated with various elements, including a chicken. “I construct my images with the awareness of the cultural gaze, of the fragmented information that one receives when tradition is alienated from its source,” she says. Other images are more abstract, as she also tries to reflect the aspects of Vodun that cannot be shown through photography. For this series, Leuba also experimented with her materials, printing the resulting photographs on tapestries and aluminum.

Leuba’s most recent series titled Illusions was shot during the two years she spent in Tahiti. It challenges Paul Gauguin’s colonial imagination and the visual codes embedded in the representation of Polynesian women as beautiful and desirable. Addressing the fetishization of the Other in Western society, Leuba worked with local members of the LGBTQ+ community; her sitters are known in Tahiti as Māhū (Polynesian for effeminate men) and rae-rae (a transgender woman). In the photographs, the models decorated with colorful makeup, body paint and cultural ornaments blend into the natural surroundings. Leuba painted her models’ skin in bright colors, atypical for human skin tone. In one photo, a model painted in blue and surrounded by floral arrangements is photographed by the ocean. Another image titled “La Détente” shows two Tahitian men under a palm tree leaf, their bodies painted in red standing out against the green leaves. 

The last series in the photobook jumps back to Leuba’s earliest work. Titled Black Panther, the series reenacts the iconic imagery of the Black Panther Party. One portrait shows a young man wearing a black beret, sunglasses, and a white t-shirt under his leather jacket, with a Black Panther pin attached to the collar of his jacket. Placed at the very end of the book, these works show the full circle of her interests, and mark the beginning of Leuba’s interest in both staging her photographs and bringing in charged cultural symbols. 

Leuba’s work brings up urgent questions about the representation of the cultural Other, and offers a sophisticated visual language to articulate it. Ultimately, she questions and challenges the politics of looking. Crossed Looks offers a solid overview of Leuba’s multiple bodies of work, and places her practice in a wider context of the nuanced themes of identity and representation. Just like a number of artists (like Frida Orupabo or David Uzochukwu, as examples) who use their dual heritage to shift our gaze, Leuba’s work reframes the way her homeland is represented. Her book and show also come at the time when the United States reckons with its own heritage of systemic racism, creating the possibility for resonant connections across both time and geography. 

Collector’s POV: Namsa Leuba is represented by Boogie-Wall in London (here) and Art Twenty One in Lagos (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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