“Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria” (2015) by Namsa Leuba. Image courtesy of Aperture, New York, 2019. © Namsa Leuba

By Courtney Byrnes

As part of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” exhibit on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art May 8 through Sept. 11, “Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria” by Namsa Leuba captures more than just a young Black woman wearing Nigerian designer clothing in front of a swirling, bright and colorful backdrop. The photograph, like others in the collection, combines art and fashion and has influences from the West and Pan-Africanism.

Tannenbaum | Photo / Andrew McAllister
Lisby | Photo / David Burstein Photography

As told to Canvas by CMA curators Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography, and Darnell Lisby, assistant curator, “Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria” is part of a series by Leuba called “Next Generation Lagos,” produced during the artist’s residency with Art Twenty One, a contemporary art space in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos is the second-most populous city in Africa with a population of 15.4 million. It has become a center for the movie, music and fashion industries, taking the fashion scene specifically to the international stage with Arise Fashion Week in 2007.

With influences from different African cultures, the model wears an ensemble by Nigerian designer Ituen Basi Torlowei, who integrates wax print fabrics and indigenous techniques to symbolize a new era of West African fashion separated from colonialism. Her shirt shares subtle nods to the Mangbetu culture in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, showing an elongated head and an intricate braided hairstyle, and various Guinean cultures, Lisby says.

Canvas: What makes this piece noteworthy? 

Tannenbaum: In the gallery, your eye is immediately caught by Namsa Leuba’s stunning, vivid image of a chic young Black woman with bright yellow lips, posed in front of a psychedelic landscape of swirling colors and dark green foliage. The photographer was born and raised in Switzerland to a Guinean mother and Swiss father. Curator of “The New Black Vanguard” Antwaun Sargent wrote that Leuba “explores her own biography by looking at Africa through a Western lens.” The artist spent much of 2012 to 2017 on what she has called a “journey back” to her African roots, researching African culture and history and traveling around the continent. She has stated, “I am inspired by my origins and by new creative exchanges, infusing reality with my own sensitivities and experiences.”

Canvas: What response or emotions does it evoke?

Tannenbaum: Responses to art can be personal and vary from viewer to viewer. For me, this image takes the restrained, static profile format found in some Italian Renaissance portraits of nobles and blasts it with energy, sensuality and motion through swirling patterns and melting colors.

Canvas: How might this photograph be influential in the world of art or fashion?

Lisby: This photo is representative of a creatively transformative period throughout the African continent and diaspora that included the emergence of new fashion centers from Lagos and Marrakech to Johannesburg. This blossoming encouraged new generations to use fashion and style to take the continent into a new future, unhindered by its colonial history. Many of these creatives over the past 20 years have worked to develop fashionable identities unique to their homelands and to defy the impoverished tropes that belabor the continent’s public persona. Photographs (such) as this represent the resilience and creative newness that African designers and creatives bring to the forefront, challenging the Eurocentric view of fashion. There are now so many African natives – such as Cameroonians Claude Kameni and Imane Ayissi, Nigerian native Duro Olowu, or South African rising star Thebe Magugu – whose creative identity not only expands and shapes their community, but also the European and American fashion markets from Haute Couture Week in Paris to fashioning the style of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Canvas: How does this photograph fit into the New Black Vanguard collection?

Tannenbaum: Leuba is one of a number of young Black photographers located around the world whose work fuses art and fashion photography to open conversations around the representation of the Black body and challenges the idea that Blackness is homogeneous. Sargent, the exhibition’s curator, has termed these artists the New Black Vanguard. 

On view

“Sarah, Lagos, Nigeria”

Artist: Namsa Leuba

Year: 2015

Find it: The photograph is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” exhibit from May 8 through Sept. 11.