Can you tell me something about your background, for example, where did you grow up and what is your connection to Africa?
I was born to a Guinean mother and a Helvetian father. I grew up on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland.
All I knew before the trip was that my mother was Muslim and that my father was a 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 the people’s respect for it. I had been exposed to the supernatural part of Guinea since I was a child: I visited ‘marabouts’ (a type of witch) and around this time took part in many ceremonies and rituals. This was important because it enabled me to be more aware of the intricacy and the existence of a parallel world, that of the spirits.
In the Series 'YaKalaBen' you photographed different people in partly unconventional looking clothing and unconventional poses mixed with traditional masquerade and statuettes. Can you describe a little bit about the situation in which the series was created?
I traveled through Guinea, and operated according to the different rituals and ceremonies to create my series.
I went to so many places to find the best and to choose good people. What’s more, I created all the costumes myself and chose all the props personally.
When I was ready to shoot, I could not waste time in order to avoid the sometimes violent reactions from the villagers. When we look at my pictures in retrospect, it reminds us of statuettes, and the statuettes remind us of the human figure. We see them as statuettes even though they are humanized. The final image is not just what you see, but my experience and the story behind it. I am particularly interested in fetishes. My approach is to separate those sacred statuettes from their religious context in order to immortalize them in a Western framework. They are ritualistic tools that I have animated by giving them an unusual meaning in the Guinean context.
In some African cultures the ritual is one of the most holy aspects of social living. How did you manage to get accepted into these tight-knit groups?
My work was realized between January and March 2011 in Guinea Conakry. It took me four months to prepare my trip with the help of my mother and my family on the ground. The preparation was extensive as I couldn’t just turn up and say “Hi, I’m just taking pictures.”
Did the people simply let you improvise with their ritual statuettes or was it a difficult task to get the permission?
Throughout my fieldwork, I had to deal with sometimes violent reactions from Guineans who viewed my procedures/practices as a form of sacrilege. Some were afraid and were struck with astonishment. Permission was also often difficult. An example of the difficulties I faced is that to be able to enter a sacred forest normally reserved for the few initiated, I received after long negotiations an “express” introduction which ended up taking a day to complete.
Can you tell me something about the Series 'WHAT WE WANT WHAT WE BELIEVE IN '? What caused you to re-enact the Black Panther party. Where did you get the inspiration for the series?
I realized this project two years ago at the ECAL (University of Art and Design in Lausanne). We had to realize a series on a major event that happened between 1960 and 2000. I choose the Black Panther movement because of what it still represents today. They were defending civil rights for black people and fighting against the racial segregation they suffered. This is actually a fight still very much present nowadays, and many people have to struggle for their rights because of the color of their skin. Being as I am a mix between two different cultures and two different colors, I felt the need to expose this phenomenon from my black point of view.
In the series 'Happy Polish' you document middle class families in Poland. Is this Series a way for you to connect with the Central European part of your soul? What connects you with Poland?
I have some family on my father’s side in Poland, one of my father’s uncles is married to a Polish woman and they have been living there for many years now. They have a fabric factory there and are quite wealthy people, and I got interested in the lives of their workers and of their family’s maids. I worked with some of their factory’s employees, with a former maid and with the current maid of my uncle and aunt in the town of Tarnow, where I got totally immersed in typical Polish middle class life. It was a very interesting experience because these people opened up to me as they opened their house and welcomed me into their families.
Most of your series exist in book form. What do you like about the book medium? Do you conceptualize your series as books?
To me the object is very important; I need to feel it, to touch it, to look at it and to give a shape to my work. I get to do all the set-editing and the graphic design. I need to totally conceptualize all my books, because it is a very personal view of my work. I try to give my books a good rhythm and want to keep up the pace of my pictures. I need the reading to be strong and powerful.
Namsa, thank you for this interview.
Namsa Leuba gallery