MIKAEL OWUNNA CELEBRATES QUEERNESS IN THE AFRICAN DIASPORA
A symbol on the cover of Mikael Owunna’s new book, Limitless Africans (FotoEvidence), depicts two women lying down on a bed in an embrace. The glyph is from the precolonial writing system of the Igbo, a people indigenous to an area encompassed by present-day Nigeria.
Owunna discovered the symbol while researching his ethnic identity for the book, which uses portraiture and personal stories to explore the lives of queer Africans living in ten countries in North America, the Caribbean and Europe. Owunna, who is Igbo, was born in Pittsburgh to a Swedish-Nigerian mother and a Nigerian father.
He chose to highlight a depiction of intimacy between two women because its existence contradicts something Nigerian members of his family said to him as a queer teen: that queerness does not exist in Igbo or Nigerian culture, and that his gender identity and sexuality were the result of living in the West.
For LGBTQ Africans living on the continent or abroad, this idea that queerness is an invention of the West and white people is a common tool of prejudice, Owunna explains. The idea ties his experience to the experiences of the people who agreed to participate in the book. “I was really interested and excited to craft the design [of the] book around Igbo history and culture, to place queer Africans within a historical framework, but also within African cosmology,” Owunna explains.
Owunna first picked up a camera in 2009 while spending a summer studying at Oxford. Just months earlier he was visiting family in Nigeria for the Christmas holiday when, as an 18-year-old, he was put through a series of “exorcisms” meant to cure him of being queer. The experience intensified his feelings of anxiety and depression. “I didn’t know how to transform those experiences and how to find healing and spaces of healing,” he recalls. Photography became “this space of expression that I really didn’t have before.”
Owunna began Limitless Africans in 2013 after seeing queer South African artist Zanele Muholi’s exhibition “Faces and Phases,” a series of portraits of lesbian South Africans, when it was shown at Carnegie Museum of Art. “I was so incredibly moved because I had never seen a portrait of a queer African person in my entire life,” Owunna recalls. Seeing “queer African voices out there that are telling our stories, and seeing Zanele’s work, I felt like I had permission to then tell my own story,” Owunna says.
He started by connecting with other LGBTQ Africans through social media platforms, and did preliminary interviews with 40 people to gather information and find commonalities. Again and again, he says, he heard from people who had been told that it is “un-African” to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer. “So that became the overarching theme of the work: Looking at LGBT Africans in diaspora, how can I debunk this idea that it’s un-African to be LGBT using framed portraiture? And that’s how, particularly through those conversations, the content around creating positive imagery and portraiture around LGBT African diaspora came about.”
After a couple of years of research, Owunna began his project in earnest, photographing people who were geographically accessible to him in Washington, D.C., where he lived at the time.He felt it was important to get as wide a representation of the African diaspora as possible, and he later raised enough money through crowdfunding campaigns to travel and photograph people from 20 African countries.
The people Owunna photographed had a lot of input in how they were represented visually, Owunna says, which added variety to the series. He would ask the participant to select two to three outfits “that they feel really express who they are,” and he encouraged them to bring textiles or other objects that were “significant to their story,” he says. The participants would suggest locations for the shoot as well. “They had a lot of agency in terms of shaping how they wanted to be represented within the images,” Owunna explains.
By sharing the work on Instagram, Owunna has seen the people he photographed connect with one another and with other LGTBQ Africans. And by embracing his Igbo heritage and using its symbols and history in the design of the book, Owunna is also claiming his “space as an Igbo person within queerness, within our culture, within our history.” Nearly a decade on from when he first picked up a camera, Owunna will release Limitless Africans on October 11, National Coming out Day for LGBTQ Americans.