On the Polynesian island of Tahiti, there is something similar to the sixth sense – it does not belong to men or women. Instead, it is the only domain of “mahu” that is recognized as outside the traditional male-female divide.
“There is a sense of otherness that neither men nor women have,” says Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Luba, whose images are from the island at a new exhibition in London. “Everyone knows that they have something special in (French Polynesia).”
In Tahiti, mahu is considered a third or “liminal” gender, born biologically male, but distinguished by peers, often from their lives. Since ancient times, their gender identity has been accepted on the island, and Mahu has traditionally played social and spiritual roles as guardians of cultural customs and dances or as caretakers of children and adults.
Luba’s photo series, “Illusions: The Myth of the ‘Wahine’ Through Gender Dysphoria,” shows the diversity of gender identities in French Polynesia, where the photographer spends her half.
In a telephone interview from Tahiti, Luba said it was difficult to explain the extra power that Mahu clearly had. It is a blend of empathy, intuition, er clarity and creativity – all terms that apply to Luba’s wide-ranging photography.
Since graduating from Lausanne University of Art and Design (ECAL) in 2010, Luba has developed a system that combines elements of documentary photography with a great showcase of fashion shoots. The result is what she calls “document-fiction.”
Luba, who describes herself as African-European (her mother is Guinea and her father is Swiss), says that her aim is to reflect the realities that are not seen through the lens of Western colonialism.
In 2011, she moved to the Guinean capital of Conakry, giving voice to her later work for the project. Exploring the animist beliefs in the city, she brought to life images of ordinary people – mostly strangers who met on the street – with elaborate postures and backdrops.
This project, along with subsequent work across Africa, dealt with the legacy of colonialism and how Western understanding has affected current societies. And Luba developed these ideas further in Tahiti.
Pictures from the series premiered last year at the Women’s London Gallery, Boogie Wall. The exhibition directly attacks the stereotypes of Tahiti’s complex gender and sexual identities, which rely on exoticism and sexualization of Polynesian women.
Mahu’s traditional artistic characters attracted visiting artists, including Paul Gauguin, whose 19th-century portraits of young Tahitians strongly influenced Western imprints of Polynesian culture, but also painted a controversial picture of exotic and sexual permissive paradise.
Central to these stereotypes is the ideal of “vahin”. The word “woman” is used to mean humble girls or young women in Western countries, which is embodied in the sexual imagery of Gauguin (in fact, he marries a girl in his teens when he visits the island in 1891).
Portraits are often painted in everyday environments, but by using bright body paint and stylized clothing, Luba aims to re-emphasize the personality of her subjects. There are also people who identify as “ray-ray” in her films, trans women, unlike most men, who often undergo gender reassignment surgery.
“I already know what I want,” Luba said. “To me, it’s important to look at the beauty and power of (the subject) – in my films, it’s a very strong form, a strong posture – and to beautify themselves.”
Luba interviews her subjects for hours before taking a photo. She said that while some people were cautious at first, they had previously had uncomfortable experiences with voyeuristic photographers, and began to look further ahead after the first images appeared in magazines in New York.
By using extensive staging, Luba avoids the typical mix of documentary photography. Instead, she said, her positive, charismatic approach allows her to illuminate eclectic stories from families and culture, including acceptance journeys, as well as homelessness and conflict histories.
“Sometimes I hear some (tough) things that happen to them. It’s not entirely sexy or attractive. It’s hard. Others are very accepting of their family and their community,” Luba said.
“‘Life cycles’ are all completely different.”