Namsa Leuba’s vivid portraits seize Tahiti’s ‘third gender’

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Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNN

On the Polynesian island of Tahiti, there may be mentioned to be one thing like a sixth sense – one which belongs neither to males nor to ladies. As a substitute, it’s the solely area of the "mahu", a group acknowledged as outdoors the normal male-female divide.

"Mahu has this different sense that they don't have males or ladies," mentioned Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba, whose photographs of the island are proven in a brand new exhibition in London. "It’s identified in (French Polynesia) that they’ve one thing particular."

In Tahiti, the mahu are thought-about a 3rd or "liminal" genus, born biologically male however acknowledged by friends as distinct, typically from the start of their lives. Their gender id has been accepted on the island since time immemorial, and the Mahu have historically performed key social and religious roles, comparable to custodians of cultural rites and dances or caregivers for kids and the aged.

Leuba's new sequence of photographs, "Illusions: The Fantasy of the Vahine" via Gender Dysphoria ", present the variety of gender identities in French Polynesia, the place the photographer spends half of his 12 months.

In a Tahiti phone interview, Leuba mentioned that the extra energy that the Mahu apparently possesses is tough to explain. It’s, he defined, a mix of empathy, instinct, generosity and creativity, all phrases that may very well be utilized to Leuba's wide-ranging pictures.

Invisible identities

After graduating from the College of Artwork and Design in Lausanne (ECAL) in 2010, Leuba developed an strategy that mixes components of documentary pictures with the wealthy staging of style providers. The result’s one thing she calls "docu-fiction".


Describing himself as Afro-European (his mom is Guinean and his father is Swiss), Leuba mentioned he wished to mirror, via fiction, the realities made invisible when seen via a western colonial lens.

In 2011, he traveled to Guinea's capital Conakry for a mission that might set the tone for his subsequent job. Exploring animist beliefs within the metropolis, he created portraits of regular individuals – principally strangers whom he met on the road – with elaborate poses and backdrops.

Namsa Leuba photographer (1)

Namsa Leuba

The mission, together with subsequent work throughout Africa, addressed the legacy of colonialism and regarded how Western perceptions impacted at this time's societies. And Leuba additional developed these concepts in Tahiti.

The photographs of the sequence are on show in a brand new gallery for girls in London, Boogie Wall. They intention to indicate the complicated sexual and sexual identities that exist in Tahiti, instantly attacking the stereotypes which might be primarily based on the exoticism and sexualization of Polynesian ladies.

Namsa Leuba tahiti (10)

Namsa Leuba

Mahu's conventional creative roles have made them enticing to visiting artists together with Paul Gauguin, whose 19th-century portraits of younger Tahitians strongly influenced Western impressions of Polynesian tradition as they painted a controversial image of an unique and sexually paradise permissive.

On the coronary heart of those stereotypes was the perfect of "vahine". The time period, which merely interprets to "girl", got here for use within the West to discuss with submissive ladies or younger ladies, embodied within the sexualized poses in Gauguin's work (in impact, he would have married a woman in her adolescence throughout a go to to l & # 39; island in 1891).

Invisible genres

In "Illusions", Leuba addresses each the "vahine" fable and the affect of 19th-century Christian missionaries, who preached the binary view of the Bible on gender and instituted legal guidelines that criminalized relations with the mahu.

The portraits are sometimes shot in a each day atmosphere, however utilizing a vivid physique paint and a stylized costume, Leuba goals to reaffirm the individuality of his topics. Her photographs additionally embody individuals who determine themselves as "rae-rae", trans ladies who, not like many mahu, typically pursue gender reassignment.

"I already knew what I wished to have," mentioned Leuba. "It was crucial for me to see (the topic) magnificence and energy – in my photographs, it’s a very robust side, a powerful posture – and (permit them to) make themselves stunning"

Namsa Leuba tahiti (5)

Namsa Leuba

Leuba interviews his topics for hours earlier than photographing them. Whereas some have been initially cautious, having beforehand had disagreeable experiences with voyeurist photographers, he mentioned, others started to return ahead after the primary photographs appeared in New York magazines.

By using an elaborate staging, Leuba avoids the standard talent of documentary pictures. As a substitute, he mentioned that his constructive and glamorous strategy makes eclectic tales shine, together with tales of homelessness and battle, together with journey acceptance by households and tradition.

"Typically I felt some actually (tough) issues that had occurred to them, and it wasn't completely attractive or glamorous. It was tough. And others have been nicely accepted by their household and group," mentioned Leuba.

"All" life cycles "have been completely completely different."

"Notre Dame / Our Girl" is on show at Boogie Wall gallery till 27 October 2019.

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