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Colorful Potraits Bring Into Limelight "Mahu" The Third Gender In Tahiti

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New images turn the spotlight toward “Mahu” - a third gender community on the Polynesian island of Tahiti.

"Mahu have this other sense that men or women don't have," said Swiss-Guinean photographer Namsa Leuba, whose images from the island are showing at a new exhibition in London. "It is well known in (French Polynesia) that they have something special."


Leuba's photo series, "Illusions: The Myth of the 'Vahine' through Gender Dysphoria," shows the diversity of gender identities in French Polynesia, where the photographer spends half her year.


Leuba says that through her work, which she describes as “docu-fiction”, she wants to shine a light on the realities that Western Colonisation has made invisible. She tends to challenge, in her latest work, Western perceptions that have shut some identities into the shadows.



Images from the series went on show at an all-female London gallery, Boogie Wall, last year. The exhibition aimed to show the complex gender and sexual identities that exist in Tahiti, directly attacking stereotypes that rely on exoticism and the sexualization of Polynesian women.


In "Illusions," Leuba tackles both the "vahine" myth and the influence of 19th-century Christian missionaries, who preached the Bible's binary view on gender and instituted laws that criminalized relationships with mahu.


The portraits are often shot in everyday surroundings, but by using bright body paint and stylized costume, Leuba aims to reassert the individuality of her subjects. Her images also include people who identify as "rae-rae," trans women who, unlike many mahu, often pursue gender reassignment surgery.


"I already knew what I wanted to have," said Leuba. "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.”


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