In Europe we have quite a warped impression of Voodoo, largely informed by horror films and pin-skewered dolls. A new series by photographer Namsa Leuba aims to challenge our views of the animist tradition of Vodun, or Voodoo, collaborating with practitioners in the birthplace of the faith, Benin.
“I wanted to show a fictional vision, unreal and surrealist scenes with poetry and delicacy,” she tells It’s Nice That. For the series, called Weke, Namsa translated some of the stories, folklore and ritual practices into images, assisted by local voodoo priests throughout the country who helped her unpack this rich source material. “Vodun cosmology is based on the idea that spirits govern the natural and human world, and religious practices incorporate ceremonies that communicate with mythical gods,” explains Namsa. “The basic tenet of Voodoo stipulates the continuity of all things both visible and invisible in the universe, a belief in the interconnectedness of the living, spirit and natural world.”
As well as being visually rich, Namsa’s interest in Voodoo also has a personal angle. “My interest in traditional West African religious practices is based on my dual heritage, from a Guinean mother and a Swiss father,” she explains. “Growing up, I was exposed to the animist belief system of my mother’s family in Guinea, which was in stark contrast to my upbringing in Switzerland. These practices served as a vital point of connection to my ancestral roots, and a part of my family that I was fragmentally connected to. At the same time, the practices were exotic, stemming from an ideology that sits in contrast to Western belief systems.”
Namsa explains that because of her dual heritage she is often considered ‘other’, either too ‘African’ to be European or too Swiss to be from Guinea. “In this unique positioning, I am interested in the politics of the gaze – who is looking, who is being looked at, and the medium of which this looking occurs.” This idea becomes particularly pertinent given the heritage of colonial photography in the 19th Century, which fetishised and exoticised non-Caucasian bodies. “Since the invention of photography, the camera has been a determining instrument for the construction and consolidation of the Western gaze. The inherent philosophy of photography is itself a Western concept, the notion that all can be proved and verified by direct visual sight.”
With such a charged history, involving practitioners and the local community in bringing their traditions to life was essential. The project involved her asking the people she met to model and creating costumes and props together from what was available. Sometimes this process was challenging – Namsa’s favourite image, for example, features a live chicken on top of a improvised hat. “It was quite a sport to get the chicken on to the plate,” Namsa tells It’s Nice That. “Before the shot the chicken was running all around the set. I really enjoy preparing the plate, hanging all the threads from it. During the process all the kids in the village were asking me lots of questions.” Resourceful and collaborative, Namsa’s striking images give us a window into an often misunderstood faith and practice.