On the Polynesian island of Tahiti, it is said that there is something like the sixth sense – one that belongs to neither men nor women. Instead, it is the only domain of the “mahu,” a community that is recognized as outside the traditional division between men and women.
“Mahu have that other meaning that men or women don’t have,” said Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba whose images from the island are on display at a new exhibition in London. “It is well known in French Polynesia that they have something special.”
In Tahiti, the moss is considered a third or “liminal” genus, born biologically male, but peers recognized as different, often from an early age. Their gender identity has been accepted on the island since ancient times, and mahu traditionally play key social and spiritual roles, as guardians of cultural rituals and dances or providers of care for children and the elderly.
Leuba’s photo series, “Illusions: The Myth of“ Vahine ”through Gender Dysphoria,” shows the diversity of gender identities in French Polynesia, where the photographer spends half a year.
In a telephone conversation with Tahiti, Leuba said the extra power Mahu apparently possesses is hard to describe. It is, she explained, a mixture of empathy, intuition, generosity and creativity – all words that could be applied to Leuba’s broad photography.
Since graduating from the University of Art and Design in Lausanne (ECAL) in 2010, Leuba has developed an approach that combines elements of documentary photography with rich scenic fashion scenes. The result is something he calls “documentary fiction.”
Describing herself as African-European (her mother is Guinea and her father is Swiss), Leuba said she wants to reflect through fiction the realities that are invisible when viewed through a Western colonial lens.
In 2011, she traveled to the Guinean capital, Konakry, for a project that would set the tone for her later work. Exploring animistic beliefs in the city, she brought portraits of ordinary people – mostly strangers she met on the street – with vividly complex poses and backgrounds.
The project, along with later work across Africa, confronted the legacy of colonialism and considered how Western perceptions affect today’s societies. And Leuba further developed those ideas in Tahiti.
Pictures from the series were exhibited last year at the all-female London gallery Boogie Wall. The aim of the exhibition is 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 made them the subject of fascination for guest artists, including Paul Gauguin, whose portraits of young Tahitians strongly influenced Western impressions of Polynesian culture as they painted a controversial image of an exotic and sexually permissive paradise.
Central to these stereotypes was the “vahine” ideal. The term, which in translation simply means “woman,” began to be used in the West to mean submissive girls or young women, embodied in sexualized poses in Gauguin’s paintings (indeed, he would marry a girl in her early teens during a visit to the island in 1891).
Portraits are often taken in an everyday setting, but using bright body colors and a stylized costume, Leuba wants to reaffirm the individuality of her subjects. Her images also include people who identify as “rae-rae,” trans women who, unlike many mahu, often undergo gender reassignment surgery.
“I already knew what I wanted to have,” Leuba said. “It was very important for me to see (the subject’s) beauty and strength – in my paintings there is a very strong look, a firm posture – and (to allow them to) make themselves beautiful”
Leuba interviewed her subjects for hours before photographing them. While some were initially cautious, having previously had unpleasant experiences with voyeuristic photographers, she said it appeared even more after the first images appeared in New York magazines.
By using complex scripts, Leuba avoids the raw feature of documentary photography. Instead, she said her positive, glamorous approach allows eclectic stories to shine, including a history of homelessness and conflict, along with journeys of acceptance from family and culture.
“Sometimes I would hear some really (difficult) things that happened to them and it was totally not sexy or glamorous. It was hard. Others were well received by family and community,” Leuba said.
“All the ‘life cycles’ were completely different.”