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Vivid portraits shine gentle on Tahiti’s ‘third gender’

Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNN

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On the Polynesian island of Tahiti, there may be mentioned to be one thing akin to a sixth sense — one which belongs to neither males nor girls. As an alternative, it’s the sole area of the “mahu,” a group acknowledged as being exterior the normal male-female divide.

“Mahu have this different sense that males or girls do not have,” mentioned Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba, whose photographs from the island are exhibiting at a brand new exhibition in London. “It’s well-known in (French Polynesia) that they’ve one thing particular.”

In Tahiti, mahu are thought-about a 3rd or “liminal” gender, born biologically male however acknowledged by friends as distinct, typically from early of their lives. Their gender id has been accepted on the island since time immemorial, and mahu historically play key social and religious roles, as guardians of cultural rituals and dances, or suppliers of care for youngsters and elders.

Leuba’s picture sequence, “Illusions: The Fable of the ‘Vahine’ by Gender Dysphoria,” reveals the variety of gender identities in French Polynesia, the place the photographer spends half her 12 months.

In a phone interview from Tahiti, Leuba mentioned the extra energy that the Mahu apparently possess is tough to explain. It’s, she defined, a mix of empathy, instinct, generosity and creativity — all phrases that could be utilized to Leuba’s wide-ranging pictures.

Unseen identities

Since graduating from the Lausanne College of Artwork and Design (ECAL) in 2010, Leuba has developed an strategy that mixes parts of documentary pictures with the wealthy staging of vogue shoots. The result’s one thing she calls “docu-fiction.”


Describing herself as African-European (her mom is Guinean and her father is Swiss), Leuba mentioned she goals to mirror, by fiction, realities made invisible when considered by a Western colonial lens.

In 2011, she traveled to the Guinean capital, Conakry, for a mission that will set the tone for her later work. Exploring animist beliefs within the metropolis, she introduced portraits of standard folks — principally strangers she met on the road — to life with elaborate poses and backdrops.

Namsa Leuba photographer (1)

Namsa Leuba

The mission, together with later work throughout Africa, confronted the legacy of colonialism and regarded how Western perceptions have impacted present-day societies. And Leuba developed these concepts additional in Tahiti.

Pictures from the sequence went on present at an all-female London gallery, Boogie Wall, final 12 months. The exhibition aimed to point out the complicated gender and sexual identities that exist in Tahiti, immediately attacking stereotypes that depend on exoticism and the sexualization of Polynesian girls.

Namsa Leuba tahiti (10)

Namsa Leuba

Mahu’s conventional inventive roles have made them a topic of fascination for visiting artists together with Paul Gauguin, whose 19th-century portraits of younger Tahitians strongly influenced Western impressions of Polynesian tradition whereas portray a controversial image of an unique and sexually permissive paradise.

Central to those stereotypes was the perfect of the “vahine.” The time period, which interprets merely as “girl,” got here for use within the West to imply submissive women or younger girls, embodied within the sexualized poses in Gauguin’s work (certainly, he would marry a woman in her early teenagers throughout a go to to the island in 1891).

Invisible genders

In “Illusions,” Leuba tackles each the “vahine” fantasy and the affect of 19th-century Christian missionaries, who preached the Bible’s binary view on gender and instituted legal guidelines that criminalized relationships with mahu.

The portraits are sometimes shot in on a regular basis environment, however by utilizing shiny physique paint and stylized costume, Leuba goals to reassert the individuality of her topics. Her photographs additionally embody individuals who determine as “rae-rae,” trans girls who, in contrast to many mahu, typically pursue gender reassignment surgical procedure.

“I already knew what I wished to have,” mentioned Leuba. “For me, it was crucial to see (the topic’s) magnificence and the ability — in my photos, it is very sturdy look, a robust posture — and to (enable them to) make themselves stunning”

Namsa Leuba tahiti (5)

Namsa Leuba

Leuba interviews her topics for hours earlier than photographing them. Whereas just a few had been cautious at first, having beforehand had uncomfortable experiences with voyeuristic photographers, she mentioned, extra started coming ahead after the primary photographs appeared in magazines in New York.

Via use of elaborate staging, Leuba avoids the rawness typical of documentary pictures. As an alternative, she mentioned her optimistic, glamorous strategy permits eclectic tales to shine, together with histories of homelessness and battle, together with journeys of acceptance from households and tradition.

“Typically I might hear some actually (robust) stuff that has occurred to them, and it was completely not horny or glamorous. It was tough. And others had been well-accepted by their household and their group,” Leuba mentioned.

“All the ‘lifecycles’ had been completely completely different.”


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