Tahiti’s ‘third gender’ and trans community are highlighted in a new exhibition currently running in London.
The photographs, by Switzerland-born artist Namsa Leuba, feature in a group show entitled Notre Dame / Our Lady at the Boogie Wall gallery in Mayfair, London.
Leuba, born in 1982 to a Guinean mother and Swiss father, has seen her work exhibited all over the world and published in publications such as Vice, i-D and New York Magazine. Her work bridges the gap between documentary and fashion (she has worked with brands including Nike and Dior).
Shooting in Tahiti (population 283,000), Leuba’s most recent project, Illusions, was partly inspired by French painter Paul Gauguin. The Frenchman famously spent time in the late 19th century on the South Pacific island and is known for his color-drenched portraits of the locals.
He depicted them as living a simplistic life against an idyllic island backdrop, romanticizing his female sitters as exotic ‘vahines’ (a term applied to Polynesian woman).
In contrast, Leuba’s images question female representation by focusing on those who have experienced gender dysphoria or don’t fit into the gender binary.
Gaugin’s work depicted Polynesian women as exotic, primitive and subservient – laying down a template for how the islanders were perceived by Westerners. Leuba wanted to challenge this viewpoint. It’s a theme she has explored before, examining the impact of colonialism in Africa through her unique lens.
Across the globe, many cultures have recognized those who do not fit into conventional binary definitions of gender. Leuba’s sitters are known in Tahiti as “Mahu” (effeminate men) or “rae rae” (transgender). They occupy a similar space to India’s hijras (recognized as a third gender in that country) and the fa’afafine in Samoan culture.
Leuba’s sitters are painted in bright colors to blend into nature, create a surreal sense of beauty and challenge notions of otherness. It’s also a nod towards the fact the Mahu are regarded as possessing a special sixth sense. Their existence in Tahiti culture pre-dates modern records.
Tahiti, the most populous island of French Polynesia, has many of the same laws as France, including same-sex marriage. That doesn’t mean stigma towards trans and gay people doesn’t exist.
Leuba says she had some trouble finding her models at first. Some of those she approached were wary of being photographed in a way that might be voyeuristic.
However, once the first few images began to appear in magazines, and they could see the results, more were willing to participate. It probably helped that Leuba interviewed her subjects for hours beforehand to get to know them and to discuss how to stage their portrait.
“I already knew what I wanted to have,” Leuba told CNN. “For me, it was very important to see [the subject’s] beauty and the power – in my pictures, it’s very strong look, a strong posture – and to [allow them to] make themselves beautiful.”
Notre Dame / Our Lady runs at the Boogie Wall gallery, 50 Brook Street, Mayfair, London, W1K 5DR, until 27 October. boogie-wall.com
More info on Namsa Leuba at namsaleuba.com