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Ya Kala Ben by Namsa Leuba
“Untitled I Acrobat”Courtesy of Namsa Leuba

These theatrical photos reclaim Guinean identity from the Western gaze

Namsa Leuba's imagery honours the traditional rituals of Guinea

In 19th century Africa, deeply racist photography created a visual perception of the continent as the exotic ‘other’ by fetishising African culture and colonial domination. Since then, the rise of African photography through the lenses of photographers like Malick Sidibé and Zanele Muholi has reclaimed African identity from the oppressive West, and restored a voice to an entire content of people silent in the expression of their own identity. Working with this sentiment is Guinean-Swiss photographer, Namsa Leuba, whose theatrical photos reconfigure an identity that's commonly overshadowed by the Western gaze. “It’s important to restore African identity, because Africa has changed enormously and evolved over time”, says Leuba. “It is renewing itself every day, it’s rich in culture, and it’s the future.”

It’s Leuba’s Ya Kala Ben series that achieves this so boldly, as she traces her identity back to the African country of Guinea to spotlight traditional Guinean traditions and customs. “My interest in traditional West African religious practices is based on my dual heritage, from a Guinean mother and a Swiss father,” explains Leuba. “Growing up, I was exposed to the animist belief system of my mother’s family in Guinea, which was in stark contrast to my upbringing in Switzerland.” Animism is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence – that inanimate objects are active and alive. “These practices served as a vital point of connection to my ancestral roots, and a part of my family that I was partly connected to. At the same time, the practices were exotic, stemming from an ideology that sits in contrast to Western belief systems. I have always been characterised as the other, whether I am too ‘African’ to be European or too ‘European’ to be African. In this unique positioning, I am interested in the politics of the gaze — who is looking, who is being looked at, and the medium of which this looking occurs.”

The vigorous energy of Guinean animsm lives within Leuba’s Ya Kala Ben portraits – for example, when she turns traditional relics into animated human statuettes that represent different Guinean prayers such as hopes for modesty, luck, and fertility. The portraits are strong and empowered, as Guinean women and men are immortalised in the sacred Guinean landscape, either painted head to toe in red or dressed in traditional clothes. Next are Leuba’s portraits of traditional Guinean acrobatics, where the bodies of young Guinean mean contort in unbelievable ways, celebrating the strength behind the Guinean subculture. Here, Leuba takes a special interest in the construction and deconstruction of the human body.

Ya Kala Ben by Namsa Leuba can be seen at The Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), Marrakech, as part of Africa is No Island – an exhibition of contemporary photography from the African continent and the diaspora. Africa is no Island is on until 24 August 2018. You can find out more here

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