Photo from Namsa Leuba's Illusions project
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Photographs that Challenge Western Perceptions of Polynesian Women

With Illusions, photographer Namsa Leuba hopes to reverse Paul Gauguin's limited view of Polynesian femininity.
September 13, 2019, 1:51pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Ever since Paul Gauguin set sail from France to Tahiti in 1891, the myth of the vahine, or Polynesian woman, has loomed large in Western art. In Gauguin’s colonial imagination, Polynesian women were beautiful, desirable, subservient. His paintings, which helped inspire the Primitivist art movement, saw Polynesian femininity as representing some preternatural connection between body, soul, and land.


In Illusions, I wanted to update and complexify the image of the vahine in art, pushing past the boundaries of binary gender to offer a portrait of Indigenous Polynesian femininity. The sitters acting out the role of vahine in these portraits are not just cisgender women, but ma¯hu¯ (Polynesian for effeminate men) and rae-rae (transgender). Decorated with cultural and social ornaments, the models blend with and emerge from their natural surroundings. Connecting to this female archetype, these images are an attempt at metamorphosis, as well as an ideological challenge to the visual borders initiated by Gauguin and his search for the primitive.


If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.