This piece originally ran in September 2016.
Mikael Owunna is a prolific photographer and storyteller whose impactful work forces audiences to pay attention. An American-born artist who identifies as an immigrant, Owunna calls upon his experiences of being raised in an American- Igbo Nigerian-Swedish household and as a member of the LGBTQ community to capture unique narratives and stunning visuals. His current photography project, Limit(less) Africans, focuses on LGBTQ African immigrants and how they explore their own identities.
Mikael Chukwuma Owunna has a complicated relationship with identity. As a queer black man, he has struggled to reconcile his sexual orientation with his Nigerian identity. In the artist’s own words, “I think being queer and an immigrant — especially an African immigrant — made me so much more conscious around what identity looks like, not only as a space for power and identification, but also can be used to weaponize and demonize people within the [queer] community.”
This is a space he has explored throughout his international travels and cross-cultural experiences. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he has lived primarily in the United States, with occasional visits to Nigeria, where his father currently resides. Growing up, he noticed that while he was eating pounded yam and egusi soup (native to Nigeria), other kids were eating steak and potatoes. Recognizing cultural differences as a child fueled his inquisitive nature and his later desire to learn more about cultural identity.
As an adult, he broadened this childhood curiosity by considering ways that an artist can create positive narratives to empower marginalized individuals and communities. His first experience using art for empowerment was following his graduation from Duke University when he moved to Taiwan as a Fulbright scholar to work with first and second grade indigenous, aboriginal students. He co-created a curriculum titled I am Atayal that was designed to help these children use photography as a way to express their cultural identity.
This experience challenged him to confront his own identity as a black person in a foreign space. Owunna admits that he was vastly unprepared for the level and depths of anti-blackness he experienced in Asia. “People literally did not see me as a human being,” he recalled of his conflicted experience in Taiwan. “I would be in an elevator and people would run out – literally running and looking behind them to get away from me. And I am thinking ‘Wow… this sucks.’”
Experiences like these magnified the fact that his identity as a black man often overrode his identity as a queer man in Asia. He found that his “queerness didn’t figure into the ways in which people thought to interpret me because they were focused on physical attributes – ‘He’s so large! He’s so black!’” It became evident to Mikael that the primary barrier between him and the local Taiwanese culture would not be his sexual orientation, but his skin color. After facing this overt racism from some of his white Fulbright counterparts and experiencing subsequent isolation, Owunna used his experience in Taiwan to inspire his work of intentional storytelling. Drawing from all of his encounters and experiences surrounding his multifaceted identity, he determined to debunk the myth that being LGBTQ is un-African. And so began Limit(less) Africans, a photography project showing LGBTQ African immigrants expressing their African identity through their personal style and clothing.
This project was partially born out of Owunna’s need for personal healing. He has long had a fractured sense of his Nigerian identity.
Mikael’s mother discovered his sexual orientation when he was 15 years old. “[This] set off a series of really terrible interactions over several years that culminated with me being put through a series of exorcisms in my village in Nigeria. That traumatized me and made me feel like I could not exist as a queer person who is Nigerian.” It was during this period that Mikael sought refuge in the works of queer, South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Owunna connected with Muholi’s work as it was the first time he heard of anyone publicly embracing both their African and queer identities. Additional research for similar projects led him to discover the documentaries “God Loves Uganda” and “Born This Way,” which further inspired his journey.
Initially, it was difficult finding participants and Owunna had to rely on his blog, Owning My Truth, to spread the word. He eventually located 30-40 individuals for preliminary interviews. The project has grown since then and he is determined to capture a variety of stories within the narrative of LGBTQ African immigrants. He is conscious about elevating voices different from his own. Limit(less) Africans is inclusive, with queer and trans voices. He further explores the visual language of black feminism as a privileged queer black man, highlighting the intersectionality of his own identity.
The photo series Limit(less) Africans is about providing positive visual representations of the LGBTQ African community. Exploring how LGBTQ Africans assert their identities in a positive and empowering way has “made me feel like ‘yeah, I can do that, too! I, too, can be African!’” He describes this journey as a process, like the transition of his wardrobe to include more African pieces over time.
Owunna remains committed to creating positive work that inspires not only members of the African diaspora in the West, but also for queer Africans on the continent. The 26-year-old understands his own privilege, living in a country with policy and legislative protections not afforded to many of his counterparts in Africa. He hopes his project will provide people in more hostile environments something to look to as a form of community.
Through his photography, he seeks to empower marginalized communities with the ability to tell their own stories through artistic expression. Owunna humbly prides himself on his willingness to explore rarely chartered and often dangerous waters in an effort to amplify lesser-heard voices. It is through his camera lens that he captures the stories of people on the fringes. He is rewriting narratives, one image, one story at a time.