Co.Design

Astonishing Tribal Portraiture, Taken Using Western Eyes

An award-winning series of photographs by a young Swiss-Guinean photographer refracts Guinean rituals through a European lens.

Namsa Leuba is a young photographer who grew up in Switzerland with a European father and a Guinean mother. As a student, she studied the rituals and cosmology of her mother’s native country, and received a grant to visit Guinea-Conakry in her final year at the University of Art and Design Lausanne. In early 2011, Leuba spent three months living and working in a village that had been founded by her great-grandfather. Ya Kala Ben is the award-winning thesis Leuba shot during those months.

Leuba says that her fieldwork was a chance for her to discover her origins, and she knew she wanted to explore the traditional spirituality of Guinean tribes. In Guinea, Islam is the majority religion followed by Christianity. But like many cultures where mass conversion has taken place, devotion to an earlier religion is still common, and 7% of the population practices the traditional Guinean animist faith.

In Guinean cosmology, says Leuba, ritual statuettes are used symbolically to represent “modesty, luck, fecundity or a channel for exorcism.” The statuettes are typically used in ceremonies to represent the yearnings of the worshipers—they are “not the gods of this community,” she writes, “but their prayers.”

Working with members of her mother’s community, Leuba staged portraits where humans play the parts of the traditional statuettes. She asked her subjects to dress in complicated garments representing the ritual tools. According to Leuba, this was interpreted as a fairly sacrilegious act: “I had to deal with sometimes violent reactions… [While] some were afraid and were struck with astonishment.”

There’s (obviously) a complicated colonial subtext to Ya Kala Ben. European depictions of African identity have ranged from the British exploitation of Sara Baartman to artist Phyllis Galembo’s recent tribal portraiture. As a Westerner photographing tribal community members dressed in garb based on ritual tools, Leuba plays a game of cultural telephone. “When we look at my pictures,” Leuba recently told Andrea Diaz, “it makes us think of statuettes and we look at the statuettes, we think of a human figure.” In this way, Leuba’s photos are a visual ethnography. By reimagining the ritual artifacts and capturing them in images, she’s documenting her own biases.

“I brought them in a framework meant for Western aesthetic choices and tastes,” says Leuba. “The photographic eye makes them speak differently.”

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