For much of his life, photographer Mikael Owunna felt estranged wherever he turned. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA to parents who immigrated from Nigeria, his immigrant status and Blackness led to a constant feeling of otherness in the United States, while his sexuality was perceived as "un-African" and not "of our culture" to his African circles.
In response, Owunna began his series "Limitless Africans" in 2013, which helped him find community and build connections with LGBTQ African immigrants all over the world. He traveled to ten countries across North America, Europe, and the Caribbean over the course of four years to photograph and interview communities of LGBTQ African immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. In the process, he began to realize that regardless of geography, their experiences with rejection and displacement were remarkably similar. Owunna sees the series—culminating in a book to be published on Friday, National Coming Out Day—as a collaboration between LGBTQ African immigrant communities around the world, and as an opportunity to "redefine what it means to be an immigrant, African, and queer in this increasingly fraught global moment."
I spoke with Owunna to learn more about the project and his own experiences.
VICE: What inspired you to start this series?
Mikael Owunna: When I was 18 years old, I was put through a series of exorcisms in Nigeria due to my sexuality. I was told that it was not "of our culture" to be gay, and I spent the next several years struggling with that trauma, depression and anxiety, and feeling simultaneously that I did not have a right to exist as a queer African person. I found photography a few months after these exorcisms, and the medium quickly became a light and vehicle for self expression at a time when I felt totally voiceless. Five years later, I saw the work of Zanele Muholi in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh and was so incredibly moved to see—for the first time—images of other LGBTQ African people by a Black South African lesbian photographer. That experience was so moving for me and inspired me to connect the dots to my own experiences as a queer African person in diaspora and begin work on Limit(less).
VICE: From what I've read about the work, it seems very autobiographical. You grew up being told that being gay was "un-African," Nigerian exorcists tried to "wash the gay away," and in the United States, where you were born and raised, you felt culturally alienated as a person of African descent. Has making this work helped you resolve that history and its baggage? If so, how?
Owunna: The book is definitely very autobiographical. It traces my own journey and travels over six years, going to ten countries across North America, the Caribbean and Europe and interviewing and photographing over fifty LGBTQ African immigrants in these countries, seeking to understand how all of us navigate and overcome this loaded idea that it is "un-African" to be LGBTQ. The work has been very challenging, as someone also living this queer African experience, but it has been incredibly healing as well. With many of my family members, being exposed to the work has also transformed their views about LGBTQ people and have made them much more accepting of me as well. When I did crowdfunding to support the project, I was astounded at how many of my family members contributed as well—showing just how impactful being exposed to my work has been for them. It has been very healing for me to finally have healthy relationships with many (even if not all) members of my family. That was the biggest unexpected gift of the work, in addition to the amazing friendships I made along the way with so many incredible LGBTQ African people around the world.
VICE: In the text about this work, you mention that in your travels, you found that there were "no safe spaces" for LGBTQ Africans. Can you expand on this?
Owunna: What I mean here is that there exists this illusion that African countries are unsafe for LGBTQ Africans while the West is safe for us with more liberal laws around sexuality and gender. This, of course, ignores the fact that Africa is not a country, and that the legal and cultural landscapes for LGBTQ Africans varies significantly from country to country and by socioeconomic class as well. This, of course, also ignores the ongoing discrimination faced by LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ people of color, in Western countries. This ignores the epidemic of violence and murders of Black trans women and trans women of color across the United States. This ignores the structural realities of white supremacy, racism and xenophobia that LGBTQ immigrants of color are challenged with every single day—including in predominantly white LGBTQ spaces. In this context, where do you find "belonging"? Maybe you can't return to your African country of origin because you will face violence there for living openly, but you also face violence daily in the West as an LGBTQ immigrant of color in an increasingly fascist world. There is nowhere we can go and just "be"—and that's all many of us are looking for. To belong and be safe. We have to craft these spaces for ourselves, and the book is my own "safe space" toward this end, showcasing the beauty and stories of LGBTQ African immigrants around the world.
VICE: How did you select the ten countries you traveled to? What's their geographical and cultural significance to the project; what ties them together?
Owunna: When I began the project, it proceeded rather organically, photographing individuals with whom I connected over the internet or through friends of friends for the first four countries: the United States, Trinidad & Tobago, Canada, and Sweden (where I have family connections). In 2017, I did a Kickstarter campaign and raised $11,000 to complete shooting the project with a final sprint through Europe. I focused on European countries with large African diasporas who had colonized the African continent and Caribbean—France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Germany. The myth that it is "un-African" to be LGBTQ, as well as many of the anti-LGBTQ laws on the continent, are direct legacies from many of these European colonial regimes, and so I wanted to tie this narrative together with the LGBTQ African immigrants currently living in these countries as well.
VICE: What's the story behind the title (and parenthesis)?
Owunna: It's interesting! The title Limit(less) came about from a conversation with a friend. I wanted to convey the idea that despite the very real limits that we face in our lives as LGBTQ African immigrants—homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia and more—that it was possible for us to overcome them and be limitless within ourselves. As I was just beginning the project at the time, the parentheses in Limit(less) formed a question mark surrounding that hypothesis of possibility. Can we be limitless despite all these very real constraints on our existence from the outside world?
It was intentional then, when titling the book, that I dropped the parentheses and titled the book Limitless Africans. Going through this six year process and coming out on the other end, there are no longer any lingering question marks. We are Limitless. Full stop.
VICE: Tell me more about the significance of the symbols used in the book.
Owunna: I have spent the last several years researching precolonial African sexuality and gender to find historical traces of the existence of LGBTQ African people across the historical record. In this journey of historical research, I focused on my own ethnic group, the Igbo people, and found that we had a precolonial ideographic writing system called Nsibidi that was used throughout southeastern Nigeria. One of these symbols, which forms the cover of the book, was recorded by a British anthropologist in 1911 and represents two women lying in bed together holding each other with pillows on either side of them. When I discovered this, I knew that even though members of my family had told me that it was "un-African" to be gay, that there was proof in the historical record of the existence of same-sex intimacy in our own indigenous African writing system! I wanted to include this and other Nsibidi symbols then as an homage to this discovery, my Igbo heritage and ancestors and also to place LGBTQ Africans firmly within an African spiritual and cosmological framework as well, showing that we have never been "un-African" and definitely were not seen as such by our ancestors!
VICE: I'm interested in your mix of photographic approaches. Most of the images feel like straightforward portraits, while a few are a little more mysterious. I'm also interested in how this work positions itself in aesthetic contrast to Infinite Essence. What are your thoughts on this?
Owunna: This is a great question. I photographed over 50 individuals in 10 countries for this project, and what I really strove to do was depict the incredible diversity of the LGBTQ African diaspora. Each shoot was therefore customized to the individuals and their surroundings. For some individuals, like Terna, visually representing her Muslim faith was of incredible importance to her, for others, like PO, the hostile environment they felt as a Congolese queer person living in Belgium was very important to them, so I photographed them in front of the palace of King Leopold II, who committed mass genocide and atrocities in the Congo. All of these choices, and the clothing and objects picked by the project participants, were intentionally reflected into their final portraits.
With Limitless Africans, I learned the art of using framed portraits to create emancipatory spaces on the physical plane for LGBTQ immigrants of color. In my latest work, Infinite Essence, I expand on framed portraiture and these themes of emancipation onto the spiritual plane, leveraging my training as a biomedical engineer and depicting dimensions of the soul.
VICE: How has the current conversation around immigrants and refugees shaped how you think about your work? Did this shape the pictures you made?
Owunna: I think, honestly, the biggest difference I have seen is in the reception to the work. For years, after starting the project in 2013, I found it difficult to get people in the United States to care about these narratives of LGBTQ immigrants of color. That is another reason for the international dimension to the work—there was so much more interest I found in the subject matter in Canada and Europe. With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I suddenly found much more interest in our stories in the United States. It is disappointing seeing our lives and stories treated as a trend, when they mattered before and will long after. It did not affect the way I made pictures—I continued my focus on the individual narratives and customizing each photoshoot it to each participant and their surroundings, just as I had beforehand. If anything, though, I embraced the concept of emancipation and being limitless even more with my work, seeing even more clearly how important it is for us to have positive images and depictions for and by marginalized people in this increasingly fraught global moment.
VICE: Why is it important to you that this comes out on National Coming Out Day?
Owunna: The book is released on October 11, 2019—National Coming Out Day, a day which has personal significance for me. When I came out at 15—through MySpace—I timed it to sync with 2005's National Coming Out Day. For me it is a way of signaling how I have come full circle with the work and journey, all these years later. It's a psychic gift to my 15-year-old self who was so scared and unsure of himself to show that we've made it! We were Limitless then, and are now more than ever. It is incredibly liberating to feel finally at peace all these years later, and this date has a lot to do with that.
All photographs by Mikael Owunna. You can follow their work here.
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