Namsa Leuba: Crossed Looks greets visitors with a visual cacophony of bright colors and amorphous shapes. On the title wall viewers first encounter three of the over ninety photographs on display in the Swiss-Guinean artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States. These initial untitled, abstract photographs—and the repeated visual motif wallpapered behind them—stand out sharply in contrast to the ensuing portraiture. To create them, Leuba photographed a skewed mirror image of traditional Ndebele patterns painted on homes in South Africa. In doing so, she reimagines her source material—a specific cultural tradition characterized by hard-edge geometric patterns—into new distorted images with an almost glitch-like aesthetic. In this way, Leuba creates syncretic images, blending different cultural, visual, and historical references into works that are neither objectively documentary nor completely grounded in fiction.
Organized by Lagos-based guest curator Joseph Gergel, this exhibition comprises ten thematic sections, each including three to eighteen photographs. Several photographs are arranged on two pedestals at the beginning of Crossed Looks, a visual cue reminiscent of the overlapping images in a magazine spread augmented by “outtakes” from Leuba’s official portraits. The exhibition concludes with a short video that showcases Leuba’s fashion photography process. She describes her work as b-roll footage captures the artist applying paint to the faces and bodies of models, rearranging their props and accessories, working with stylists, and taking photographs in both natural environments as well as constructed studio sets.
Photographs in the exhibition tend towards a fashion focus, others exhibit a documentary-style, though more typically they hover in between realms. To Western audiences the visual codes of a global fashion photography aesthetic appear most notably in the series NGL (Next Generation Lagos) as models are dressed in a chevron print jacket, suit, and a flower adorned shirt, among other forms of contemporary dress. In NGL, models wear brightly colored face paint as though they are living works of art.
In the series Ya Kala Ben (meaning “crossed looks” in Malinke), created in her mother’s ancestral hometown of Conakry, Guinea, the images bear a photojournalistic quality. Here, eight photographs present a single figure standing in a distinct landscape. The frontally focused style of portraiture of West African figures may remind viewers of colonial archival photographs that derived from an ethnographic interest in an exotic “Other.”
While Leuba’s images may demonstrate a compositional similarity in that each figure’s body is seen in full, largely facing forward, the garments and materials that adorn, or in some cases seemingly engulf the sitters, strikingly differ. The wall label posits: “for a Western audience, the images may be seen through a stylistic lens with a focus on fashion.” These photographs, however, hold significant cultural meaning as they refer to ritual statues commonly used in Guinean animist ceremonies to celebrate fertility, strength, power, and wealth.
Given that Leuba created photographs of individuals wearing clothes and props constructed to reimagine a traditional practice, one may wonder how Guineans perceived these images. The label notes that “among Guinean audiences, the importance of sculptural references is widely comprehended.” Further research of the work, however, reveals that Leuba was arrested for creating these photographs, and some Guinean viewers felt the images to be sacrilegious. Had this context been acknowledged in the exhibition’s didactics, it would have further demonstrated the importance of the perspectives and lived experiences of non-Western viewers.
Namsa Leuba: Crossed Looks is on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston through December 11.