Mikael Owunna on Visibility, Identity & the Queer African experience

This week we profile Mikael Chukwuma Owunna, a Nigerian-American photographer, writer and multi-platform queer activist. His current photography project, Limit(less) documents queer-identified Africans from across the diaspora. He shared with us his thoughts on visibility, multiple identities  and documenting the African queer experience around the world.

 

Tell us a little about your story. Where are you from? What have been your experiences being a person with multiple identities in the United States?

I am queer Nigerian-Swedish American but grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania permanently from the age of 3. Growing up as a black person, an immigrant, a queer person in America, it’s just like- if it’s not one thing they are oppressing you over it feels like another. And of course they are all linked to one another and can’t be viewed separately as my blackness informs my queer immigrant experience and vice-versa, but still. Like is it blatant homophobia they coming after me with today or is it the antiblackness or is Trump trying to deport someone in my community now? You feel like you get whiplash. But then at the end of the day you are just you. And all you can do is just continue being and loving on all of who you are regardless.

Hardest thing for me though is when I experience homophobia from black people. I just really shake my head and feel so disappointed and disgusted that I ever have to feel unsafe with my own people. I don’t expect to ever be safe with nonblack people, but that at the minimum would be nice- a black community free of homophobia, sexism, transphobia, ableism and the like.

 

 What prompted you to create Limit(less)?

I grew up feeling completely isolated and alone as an LGBTQ African person. When my family exorcised me in Nigeria for being gay, it made me hate myself and my culture. I was looking for answers and I tried to run away from all things African in the process. After completing my first photography project in Taiwan after college, I came home and felt trapped yet again. During that time I saw the work of Zanele Muholi on black lesbians in South Africa in a museum in Pittsburgh. It moved me deeply as I had-up until that point- never seen images of anyone who was an LGBTQ African. Never. It made me reflect on my own experiences, my own feelings of isolation, and my additional feeling of displacement being not only LGBTQ and African but also an immigrant in the West.

That space of reflection, and a strong desire – at the end of the day- to heal the wounds of my past is what brought me to this work. And is what drove me to create positive, uplifting images of LGBTQ Africans boldly living in their truths to show me a light out of the darkness I felt in my own life. And to help me find this space of synthesis and healing where I could be both queer and African and whole.

Eniola: Queer Nigerian (Shot in USA, 2016)
Eniola: Queer Nigerian (Shot in USA, 2016)

Why did you choose the medium of photography?

Why photography for this project? Well it’s my primary artistic medium besides writing, and has been for years now. I love photography and it brings me so much joy. So for me this wasn’t even a question and I scoped out this project from the very beginning as a photography project because that is what I do and that is what I am- a photographer. There’s a beauty in the art form that drives me and always will.

 

You’ve travelled to several countries and aim to go to many more. What is the common thread you’ve found when documenting a queer experience that is not entirely like your own.

The common thread amongst sub-Saharan African participants has been this rhetoric that being “LGBTQ” being “un-African,” and that this is something they have grappled with or heard. Like it doesn’t matter if you’re a Ugandan person I’m shooting in Sweden, a Rwandan person in Canada or a Nigerian person in the US, I have heard the same rhetoric again and again. For north Africans, I haven’t shot as many but the common thread I have seen has been a complicated relationship with African-ness that they are navigating. And also that the rhetoric that they hear is not about LGBTQ being “un-African” (probably due to the nature of their complicated relationship with their own Africanness) but of it being “un-Islamic”.

It’s been interesting to see these similarities and differences.

 

What is your greatest hope for the project? What impact do you want to have?

My dream is to be able to exhibit the work globally and bilingually (French & English) and on the African continent in particular. I just think it would be so amazing that people on the continent, especially LGBTQ Africans, can see the work and connect the dots to our global diasporic community. And also see a bit of themselves in the work as well. I would also love to make a book of the work too!

Lastly but also very important is that I would love to eventually build the completed project into an interactive, digital exhibition space of some sort. Because not everyone will be able to see an exhibition in physical spaces- especially if they are in the closet for example or live in a rural African community – but the internet could be a way that they could access the stories and the work.

I hope that the project can impact other LGBTQ Africans in the way it has me. It has brought so much healing and joy into my life doing this work and building community with other LGBTQ Africans. I hope that it can do the same for others as well.

Sizwe - Queer Burundian - & Kim -Trans Burundian Woman (Shot in Canada, 2016)
Sizwe – Queer Burundian – & Kim -Trans Burundian Woman (Shot in Canada, 2016)

Access to resources like the ones you’re invested in making is essential in unpacking identity and finding a community of likeminded people. Which approach do you think is needed at a micro and macro level?

I think at the micro level it looks like finding community of people like you- for example, other LGBTQ Africans. I know that has had a profound impact on my life and on the lives of others too. And also finding imagery and representation that reflects us and our experiences, it’s why there’s such excitement about new TV shows like “Insecure” and “Atlanta” as people find spaces of resonance in a society that tries to erase them constantly.

On the macro level? It will take the collapse of white supremacy honestly and a rewriting of the global map as we know it today. Colonialism has destroyed so much and it is literally structured around destroying people like us. That will not stop until that system is destroyed once and for all and we build a new society where we are truly free.

 

How do you navigate the need for representation with security concerns, especially online?

I discuss all of these concerns with each participant at length before we ever do the shoot because this is a very real concern. One person at the very beginning of the project dropped out after their shoot for that reason. I want to ensure that everyone feels 100% comfortable being public and visible and that they understand the risks, because even if they use a pseudonym for example people may still connect the dots to who they are.

It is scary being at the crossroads of so many forms of discrimination. And especially being “out” within African spaces. And I am very sensitive to people’s concerns and making sure that they know all of the potential risks before we start the creative process.

 

Do you think the current (mainstream) representation of queer bodies rejecting colonial binaries reveals a shift, if any?

I think that all forms of representation that reject colonialism is progress. I haven’t watched “Steven Universe” but have heard that is an amazing example of what that can look like. So there is a shift happening, but it’s clearly not enough since trans women of color and especially black trans women are still getting harassed and murdered daily.

So, yes, I think that it’s great and shows a gradual opening up of what we see as possible. It’s an important shift that does impact people- especially young people growing up and watching shows like “Steven Universe”- but we need far more, like 1 show is just not enough given the deluge of cis-hetero media we are surrounded with everyday. And until the literal murders and all of the other forms of discrimination (housing, job, healthcare and more) of people who do not subscribe to colonial ideas of gender stops, then it is clearly not enough since we still live in a global context of white supremacy.

Juliet: Queer Rwandan-Ugandan (Shot in Sweden, 2016)
Juliet: Queer Rwandan-Ugandan (Shot in Sweden, 2016)

Your work is centred towards the representation of multiple identities. You’ve said you want to ensure that people with multifaceted identities see themselves through your work. How do you think social media plays a role in this?

I think social media is one of the ways that we can breakthrough. One of the main ways that we can finally actually see people like us, who might not be in the mainstream media otherwise. Shows like “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube gave me a space to see my weird (middle class) blackness in a way that wasn’t reflected in the mainstream. Finding Tumblr while I was living in rural Taiwan as one of a small handful of black people in my county provided me with a black virtual community and gave me tools to understand and grapple with my experiences of antiblackness there. Black Twitter has a similar impact and shapes global discourses on a literally almost daily basis. We have power and our influence on social media shows that.

So all of this is to say that social media is incredibly important- especially for people who live at the intersection of multiple identities. It is a space that we can and do use to organize, to build community, and to see each other, be seen and just be. It is the primary gateway through which almost every single person has found Limit(less). For me as someone who did not go to art school or take photography classes, and doesn’t have many connections in the formal “art world,” social media has thus allowed the work to grow and take on a life of its own without the same gatekeepers that we may have had 20, 30 years ago. It gives me, and many other creatives, far more avenues to tell stories both of ourselves and our communities.

 

What lessons can you take away from your creative works as a queer documentarian and artist that have shaped your life philosophy?

Be who you are without compromise. That is what all of the people I have shot for Limit(less) have shown me through their own lives and experiences, and that is what I try to capture in my work too. Freedom and exaltation in the art of being who you are in all of its multifaceted complexity. It has brought me peace and a profound sense of self-love.

 

Is there anything you want to add that we did not cover?

Nigerian jollof is better than Ghanaian.

 

*Header image:

Find Mikael here and here. Visit his website  here.

Cover image: 4 Queer African Women (Shot in USA, 2017)

All images courtesy of Mikael Owunna Photography.

 




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