Namsa Leuba’s photographic series, Ya Kala Ben, was part of this year’s Haute Africa, Knokke-Heist, Belgium, March-July 9, 2014, and the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, Material Self: Performing the Other Within, at Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), Toronto, in May, 2014. Toronto-based writer, Emese Krunak-Hajagos, interviewed the artist to learn more about her use of photography to explore her African roots. xxxxxx
E.K-H: The topic for this year’s Contact Festival is ‘Identity,’ involving ancestry, history and society, and just how the individual’s sense of self is shaped by these factors. How do you feel this theme impacts on your identity, given your mixed African-European background?
N.L: I think to be a mix of cultures is a great wealth. I am an African-European, born in Switzerland. My parents have instilled in me both cultures and shared their histories, as well. When I began the ECAL University of Art and Design, I knew that I needed to deepen my knowledge of my African heritage and that I should focus all my work on African culture.
E.K-H: This project, called Ya Kala Ben, was shot in your mother’s home country of Guinea Conakry. How does the idea of origins and heritage influence your work?
N.L: For the last few years, my research has focused on African identity through Western eyes. I knew before the trip that my mother is Muslim and my father is Protestant, although I’ve not been baptized. The religious aspect of my mother’s country became very prominent. I discovered an animist side to the Guinean culture based on people’s respect for nature. I had first been exposed to the supernatural element of Guinea as a child, had visited ‘marabouts’ (a type of witch doctor), but this time around I took part in many ceremonies and rituals. It enabled me to feel more aware of the existence and intricacies of a world parallel to ours—the world of spirits.
The art of photography allows me to exteriorize my emotions and my past, telling my story through a variety of shots, in a kind of syncretism.
E.K-H: Many of the objects you use in your images are considered sacred. How did your models feel about their customs, postures and being photographed by you?
N.L: They would become serious and quiet. They were stressed most of the time because they were not familiar with modeling. They knew what they were representing, and also that they had to respect the holy tools. That is why I worked very quickly all the time. When I got ready to shoot, I did not waste a moment, because my human models were enacting something holy, and often doing so, they felt uneasy. Sometimes I had to deal with violent reactions from Guineans, who viewed my practises and procedures as a form of sacrilege.
E.K-H: Where does your imagery come from, especially for something like Statuette Ndobi? The figure seems twisted, pregnant and imprisoned in those wooden sticks. Could you tell me more about that image, the symbols and historical issues behind it and your intentions in creating it?
N.L: In this work, I was interested in the construction and deconstruction of the body as well as the ‘depiction’ of the invisible. I studied ritual artifacts common to the cosmology of Guineans; statuettes that are part of a ceremonial structure. They are from another world, yet are the roots of the living. In that way, I sought to touch the untouchable.
I traveled through Guinea and observed various rituals and ceremonies to create my series. I visited many locations to find the right places and local models, and I am particularly interested in fetishes. The myths, force of nature, and deep, intuitive, impulsive culture of Africa offer me a great deal of creative inspiration. My approach is to separate those sacred statuettes from their religious context in order to immortalize them in a Western framework.
Ya Kala Ben in the Malinke dialect means crossed look. There are statuettes in my photographs, but even in the statuettes, the humans still exist. The final images are always layered, showing not only the picture but what was behind it historically, religiously and in my experience, as well. Statuette Ndobi is a fetish statuette. I put in her some medicine, magic words, and things that belong to me. I created my own ritual in creating all of my statuettes. I thereby became the feticheur who was able to animate them with my mind.
E.K-H: How was your experience of reconnecting with your origins? What was it that surprised you the most?
N.L: I’d always wanted to explore and share the African culture that is part of me. I knew that the best way to accomplish this was to visit the village founded by my great grandfather. This pilgrimage to the land of some of my ancestors inevitably raised the sensitive question of ‘origin’ or ‘origins,’ mine, that of my parents, of others (my subjects) and of my approach.
What surprised me the most was the slow pace at which people in Guinea got things done. Everything took a long time. I found myself wasting a day waiting for people to show up. I took off my watch to be able to relate and learn how to work at that pace. The systematic lateness of models posed some technical problems. For example, the changing quality of light during the day, at certain times particularly, made it more difficult to photograph.
E.K-H: You write on your website, that the “photographic eye…makes [the objects] speak differently.” What will a viewer—unfamiliar with Guinean cosmology—understand from your work?
N.L: These objects are part of a collective. They may not be separated from it without the risk of losing their value. They don’t represent the gods of their community, but prayers. They are integrated in rigorous symbolic order, where every component has its place. They are ritualistic tools that I have animated by staging live models, so, in a manner, desecrating them by giving them another meaning—an unfamiliar one—in the Guinean context.
In reconstructing these sacred objects through my lens, I brought them into a framework meant for Western aesthetic choices and taste.
I also analyse myself through the lens of my camera, constantly questioning myself—which is very challenging—like capturing an image of a different kind. I travel away from spiritual ground to get to the plasticity of the picture. For me, spirituality is tradition; plasticity is modernism.
By Emese Krunak-Hajagos , Contributing Writer