Namsa Leuba is a Guinean-Swiss photographer who is occupied with merging two aesthetic traditions in her artwork. Leuba’s photographs for New York Magazine’s recent (and annual) “Fashion Issue” (also featured on the magazine’s new fashion blog The Cut), are at one glance, visually compelling. Bored with your average fashion spread, Leuba instead uses the shoot as a means to experiment with cultural iconicity, fine art photography, and of course, fashion. Parsing through her images for this series it isn’t hard to spot her wide array of visual tropes: layering textures, juxtaposing backgrounds, displacing the familiar, vibrant punches of color, cultural allusions etc. Perhaps just as interesting are her tag along texts. Here, between word and image, is our gateway in.
In her accompanying comments, Leuba discusses the emanating power and energy of her models’ strong poses and potent, symbolic accessories. She even begins to interchange the terms model, statuette, woman, and this fusion becomes visually evident in her work. In the best of these photos, the models co-opt the surreal backgrounds while retaining a quiet, collected power. This is quite the coup in contrast to many fashion shots, whereby power is achieved through flaunting sexuality, exaggerating poses, or securing action shots. Leuba, however, manages to circumvent these obvious plays, and this she does by mining Guinean culture, pulling out those aspects which draw from objets d’art and social bearing.
Indeed, much of her word choice evokes the otherworldliness she attempts to construct through her choice and hidden placement of material objects and accessories. Words such as “magical”, “enchanting universe”, “goddess”, “potions”, “spirits” draw from both the mythology, and religious and cultural practices found in many cultures, but most specifically, she draws from Guinea. These accessories she imbues with charged words, and charged properties hang from the bodies of her models. Most prevalent in the series is a wig, which invokes the power of hair: a force to keep away evil spirits, to increase beauty, display youth, etc. Hair has a long and widespread cultural history of power, Samson, Samurai, here, Guineans, and, of course, women, all come to mind. Other accessories included are cow horns, a shell, and bottles packed with protective potions.
We can see a direct link to this series of fashion photographs from her previous work Ya Kala Ben. In her artist statement for Ya Kala Ben Leuba writes, “In recontextualizing … sacred objects through the lens, I brought them in a framework meant for Western aesthetic choices and taste.” And this vision comes through strong in her series for The Cut. This desire to aestheticize the western experience of consuming fashion by infusing it with Guinean visual culture stripped of its significance. The surface beauty of her photographs is thus rendered thin, which is why her side commentary is so important; it adds the meaty, missing layers that her “recontextualizing” stripped. Yes, her photographs can stand alone. But if so they stand alone in fashion not fine art.
Leuba’s work is important because first, it helps us understand what the normative is, and second it tests the soft spots in the “western framework” and profits from its (and the audience’s) malleability to accommodate the work. We are increasingly headed into a remix culture, one that is constantly adding to our understanding of old and new, foreign and domestic, in ways that enrich us all in our approach to navigating the chimeric visual landscape. Leuba is well in keeping up.