On the Polynesian island of Tahiti, it is said that there is something like a sixth sense – one that belongs neither to men nor to women. Instead, it is the only area of mahu, a community recognized as outside the traditional division between men and women.
“Mahu have this other meaning that men or women don’t,” said Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba, whose images from the island are on display at a new exhibition in London. “It is known in (French Polynesia) that they have something special.”
In Tahiti, mahu is considered a third or “liminal” sex, born biologically male but recognized by peers as separate, often from the beginning of his life. Their gender identity has been accepted on the island since time immemorial and traditionally mahu play key social and spiritual roles as guardians of cultural rituals and dances or providers of care for children and adults.
Leuba’s photo series, “Illusions: The Myth of ‘Vahine’ through Sexual Dysphoria,” shows the diversity of gender identities in French Polynesia, where the photographer spends half a year.
In a telephone interview with Tahiti, Leuba said the extra strength that Mahu apparently possesses is difficult to describe. It is, she explained, a mixture of empathy, intuition, generosity and creativity – all words that could be applied to Leuba’s wide-ranging photography.
After graduating from the University of Art and Design in Lausanne (ECAL) in 2010, Leuba developed an approach that blends elements of documentary photography with the rich staging of fashion footage. The result is what she calls “documentary fiction.”
Describing herself as Afro-European (her mother is Guinean and her father is Swiss), Leuba said she aims to reflect through fiction realities made invisible when viewed through a Western colonial lens.
In 2011, she traveled to Guinea’s capital, Conakry, for a project to set the tone for her later work. Exploring the animalistic beliefs of the city, she brought portraits of ordinary people – mostly strangers she met on the street – with a life of intricate poses and backgrounds.
The project, along with later work in Africa, clashed with the legacy of colonialism and looked at how Western perceptions have affected modern societies. And Leuba developed these ideas further in Tahiti.
The images from the series were presented last year at an all-female gallery in London, Boogie Wall. The exhibition aimed to show the complex gender and sexual identities that exist in Tahiti, directly attacking stereotypes that rely on the exoticism and sexualization of Polynesian women.
Mahu’s traditional artistic roles have fascinated visiting artists, including Paul Gauguin, whose portraits of young 19th-century Tahitians have strongly influenced Western impressions of Polynesian culture as they paint a contradictory picture of an exotic and sexually permissive paradise.
Central to these stereotypes was the ideal of “vahine.” The term, which translates simply as “woman,” is used in the West to mean submissive girls or young women embodied in sexualized poses in Gauguin’s paintings (indeed, he would have married a girl in his early teens during a visit to Gauguin). island in 1891).
Portraits are often taken in everyday settings, but using bright body paint and a stylized costume, Leuba strives to confirm the individuality of its subjects. Her images also include people who identify as “rae-rae,” trans women who, unlike many mahu, often pursue gender reassignment surgery.
“I already knew what I wanted to have,” Leuba said. “It was very important for me to see (the beauty of the subject) and the strength – in my photos there is a very strong appearance, a strong posture – and (to allow them to) make themselves beautiful”
Leba interviews her subjects for hours before filming them. While some were cautious at first, having previously had awkward experiences with voyeur photographers, she said they were still appearing after the first images appeared in magazines in New York.
By using a complex staging, Leuba avoids the raw material typical of documentary photography. Instead, she said her positive, glamorous approach allows eclectic stories to shine, including the history of homelessness and conflict, along with family and cultural reception trips.
“Sometimes I would hear some really (difficult) things that happened to them and it wasn’t totally sexy or glamorous. It was hard. Others were well received by their family and community,” Leuba said.
“All ‘life cycles’ were completely different.”