Emese Krunak-Hajagos: The topic for this year’s Contact Festival is Identity, involving ancestry, history and society, and how the individual’s sense of self is shaped by them. How do you feel about your mixed African-European background?
Namsa Leuba: 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 history as well. When I began the ECAL University of Art and Design, I knew that I needed to deepen my knowledge about my African heritage and that I should focus my work on African culture.
EKH: 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?
NL: For the last few years, my research has been focused on African identity through Western eyes. All I knew before the trip was that my mother is Muslim and that 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 which is based on people’s respect for nature. I had been exposed to the supernatural part of Guinea since I was a child, had visited ‘marabouts’ (a type of witch doctor), and this time around I took part in many ceremonies and rituals. It enabled me to feel more aware of the existence and the 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 different shots, in some kind of syncretism.
EKH: Many of the objects you use in your images are considered sacred. How did your models feel about the customs, the postures, and you photographing them?
NL: They would become serious and quiet. They were stressed most of the time because they were not used to being models. They knew what they were representing, and they knew they had to respect the holy tools. That is why I had to work very quickly all the time. When I got ready to shoot, I did not waste time, because my human models were recreating something holy and many times they felt uneasy. Sometimes I had to deal with violent reactions from Guineans who viewed my practices and procedures as a form of sacrilege.
EKH: Where is your imagery coming from, especially something like Statuette Ndobi? The figure seems to be twisted, pregnant, and imprisoned in those wood sticks. Could you please tell me more about that image, the symbols, the historical issues behind it, and your intentions with it?
NL: In this work, I was interested in the construction and deconstruction of the body as well as the depiction of the invisible. I have studied ritual artefacts common to the cosmology of Guineans; statuettes that are part of a ceremonial structure. They are from another world, they are the roots of the living. Thereby, I sought to touch the untouchable.
I traveled through Guinea and observed different rituals and ceremonies to create my series. I went to many places to find the ones I was looking for and to choose the right models. I am particularly interested in fetishes. The myths, the force of nature, and the deep, intuitive, impulsive culture of Africa offer me a lot 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 Malinke dialect means crossed look. There are statuettes in my photographs, but in the statuettes, the humans are still exist. The final image is always layered and it shows not only the picture but what is behind it historically, religiously, and 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 doing all my statuettes and I became the feticheur who could animate them with my mind.
EKH: How was your experience of reconnecting with your origins? What was it that surprised you the most?
NL: I have always wanted to explore and share the African culture that is part of me. I knew that the best way to do it 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 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 in order to be able to relate and learn how to work at the Guinean space. The systematic lateness of models posed some technical problems, for instance the changing of light during the day, as at certain times it becomes harder to photograph.
EKH: You write, that the “photographic eye … makes [the objects] speak differently” on your website. What is it that a viewer—unfamiliar with Guinean cosmology—will understand from your work?
NL: These objects are part of a collective. They must not be separated from it without the risk of losing their value. They are not the gods of this community but their prayers. They are integrated in a rigorous symbolic order where every component has its place. They are ritual tools that I have animated by staging live models and, in a way, desecrated them by giving them another meaning; an unfamiliar meaning in the Guinean context. In reconstructing these sacred objects through the lens, I brought them in a framework meant for Western aesthetic choices and taste. I analyze myself through the lens of my camera and I constantly question myself—which is very challenging. It is like capturing an image. I travel from a spiritual ground to get to the plasticity of the picture. For me, spirituality is tradition; plasticity is modernism.