On the island of Polynesia Tahiti, it is said that something resembling the sixth sense – one does not belong to either men or women. Instead, it is the only area of ”mahu”, a community known to be outside the traditional male-female division.
“Mahu has another understanding that men or women don’t have,” said Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba, whose images on the island were shown at a new exhibition in London. Said. “It is well known that there is something special in French Polynesia.”
In Tahiti, mahu was born as a biologically male but considered a third or “liminal” gender, which is generally recognized by peers differently from the early stages of their lives. Gender identities have been accepted on the island since ancient times, and mahu has traditionally played key social and spiritual roles as protectors of cultural rituals and dances or as care providers for children and the elderly.
Leuba’s photo series “Illusions: Gender Dysphoria and the Legend of the ‘Vahine’ show the diversity of gender identities in French Polynesia, where the photographer spent half the year.
In an interview from Tahiti, Leuba said it was difficult to explain the additional power that Mahu had. This is a blend of empathy, intuition, generosity and creativity – all the words that can be applied to Leuba’s far-reaching photography.
After graduating from Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL) in 2010, Leuba developed an approach that blends elements of documentary photography with rich staging of fashion shots. The result is what he calls “docu-fiction”.
Describing herself as Africa-Europe (mother Guinea and father Swiss), Leuba said she intends to reflect the facts that have been rendered invisible through a Western colonial lens through fiction.
In 2011, he went to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, for a project that would set the tone for his later work. By studying the animist beliefs of the city, he brought to life regular portraits, mostly foreigners, whom he met on the street, with detailed poses and backgrounds.
The project faced its colonial heritage with further work across Africa and considered how Western perceptions affect today’s societies. And Leuba developed these ideas further in Tahiti.
The footage of the series was shown last year at the Boogie Wall gallery, a woman in London. The exhibition aimed to show the complex gender and sexual identities found in Tahiti, to attack the stereotypes based on direct exoticism and sexualization of Polynesian women.
Mahu’s traditional artistic roles have made them a subject of attraction for visiting artists, including young 19th-century portraits of Tahitian, Paul Gauguin, who strongly influenced Western impressions of Polynesian culture and painted an exotic and sexually permissive paradise.
At the center of these stereotypes was the “revelation” ideal. The term, translated only as “woman”, was used for submissive girls or young women in sexual poses in Gauguin’s paintings in the West (in fact, she married a girl in her early teens during a visit to the island in 1891).
Portraits are often shot in everyday settings, but using bright body paint and a stylized costume, Leuba aims to re-establish the individuality of his subjects. His images include people who often identify trans women who undergo gender reassignment as “rae-rae”, unlike many mahu.
“I already knew what I wanted to have,” said Leuba. “For me it was very important to see the beauty and strength of the (subject) – a very strong look, a strong posture in my pictures – and let them beautify themselves”
Leuba interviews his lessons for hours before taking his pictures. While a few people were cautious at first, he said he had begun to become more prominent after the appearance of the first images in magazines in New York, while previously having disturbing experiences with voyeur photographers.
Using elaborate staging, Leuba avoids the typical hairlessness of documentary photography. Instead, he said, his positive, eye-catching approach allowed eclectic stories, including homelessness and conflict stories, to shine through journeys of acceptance from families and culture.
“Sometimes I could hear some really (harsh) things happening to them, and that wasn’t totally sexy or glamorous. It was difficult. And others were well received by their families and communities,” Leuba said.
“All life cycles” were completely different. “