Namsa Leuba: Crossed Looks
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston
August 28 – December 12, 2020
Crossed Looks will feature over 90 works from Namsa Leuba’s projects from Guinea, South Africa, Nigeria, and Benin, and it will premiere new work from Tahiti. The exhibition is organized by Nigeria-based curator Joseph Gergel. Namsa Leuba’s photographic projects encounter critical questions about the representation of the cultural Other, offering an alternative visual vocabulary that is inherently global.
Inspired by statues, masquerades, and the religious ceremonies of her West African heritage, as well as contemporary fashion and youth culture in Africa, Leuba’s photographs are fictive in scope. She often uses models that she informally casts in the street, who become active collaborators as subjects of the portraits. With a background in art direction, Leuba constructs costumes for her sitters from locally sourced markets, using materials including blankets, fur, wood, masks, and lace.
In re-enacting these cultural symbols for the camera, she examines the deconstruction and reconstruction of the body, as well as the shift in cultural meanings when symbols are alienated from their source. Leuba’s images are at once informed by the local traditions of the community and also imagined. Borrowing from her experience in fashion and design, they create a speculative dimension by adding a contemporary sartorial twist.
Leuba is influenced by the energy of cosmopolitan urban centers in Africa, translating this spirit into a unique visual language. At times this visual language veers into abstraction, an amalgamation of overlapping patterns, textures, and colors, each with their own cultural significance. Leuba’s work mirrors the visual codes of documentary photography and the photojournalistic lens on Africa, which so often reflects the process of exoticizing the Other.
Yet, in prioritizing fictions, her images subvert the notion of photographic truth. Leuba’s work questions the politics of the gaze-who is looking, who is being looked at, and the medium in which this looking occurs. Blending diverse traditions, the photographs challenge notions of authenticity of one blanket “African” identity. Influenced by her dual Guinean-Swiss heritage, Leuba examines her simultaneous place as an insider and outsider.
The title of this exhibition, Crossed Looks, references this diverse perspective. Through the adaptation of myths, Leuba’s photographs acknowledge this double act of looking, a cross-dialogue of global cultures. This exhibition is organized according to Namsa Leuba’s five major bodies of work produced over the past nine years, in Guinea, Benin, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tahiti, respectively.
Each body of work will be presented in the form of wall installations, with image groupings hung in clusters. The exhibition will also feature new experimentations with printing on nontraditional materials including porcelain, woven tapestry, and translucent silk. Exploring Leuba’s work in fashion photography, Crossed Looks will show how her diverse practices inform one another as they cross disciplines.
This exhibition will also debut Leuba’s most recent series, Illusions. Produced in Tahiti, Illusions is inspired by the paintings of Paul Gauguin and “tropical” images in Modern Art. This imagery, imbued with cultural stereotypes, casts the Polynesian woman as desirable, subservient, and connected to the natural environment. Leuba recasts these roles using transgender models, posing an ideological challenge to the visual codes initiated by Gauguin.