Born in Pittsburgh of Nigerian-Swedish descent, photographer Mikael Owunna didn’t encounter people like himself growing up. “I thought I was the only gay Nigerian,” he tells NewNowNext. “How sad is that?”
Like many, Owunna was taught that being gay was “not of my culture... it was an 'American thing.'” Challenging this understanding seemed impossible, especially after going to Nigeria for the first time and failing to meet any out LGBT people.
That changed, however, when Owunna turned 23. Through his social media, Owunna connected with queer Africans across America. He traveled to meet many in person—getting to know them and taking their photographs.
“A lot of LGBT African people know each other," says Owunna, now 26. "So once I find one person, it becomes easier to meet others through their network.”
Owunna photographs his subjects in their own homes and neighborhoods, in the clothes they've chosen to wear. Whenever he shoots, Owunna recalls his greatest inspiration: Zanele Muholi, a black, lesbian South African photographer whose work he saw at the Carnegie Museum of Art. “I came across her [series ‘Faces and Phases'] and was moved to tears because I had never, up until that point in my life, seen an image of a queer African person. Not a single picture.”
Muholi’s work pushed Owunna to create his newest series, “Limit(less),” in which he examines how LGBT Africans in the United States and Europe bridge the gap between their multifaceted identities through fashion. “By exploring the landscape of queer African style, the project seeks to visually deconstruct this binary which states that one cannot be both LGBT and African,” he explains.
He also sees the project as addressing the rampant anti-LGBT policies throughout Africa. “Almost all of these homophobic and transphobic laws on the African continent stem from European colonialism. I see 'Limit(less)' as directly confronting this disgusting legacy, which is a relatively recent phenomenon.”
Owunna points to Nzinga of Ndongo, a female ruler who led a 40-year resistance against Portuguese encroachment in the 1600s in what is now modern-day Angola. "She ruled as king, wore all-male clothing, and had a harem of young men dressed as women who were her wives. So literally you had a butch queen with a harem of drag queens leading a massive fight against European colonial expansion—in the 1600s!"
Historically, African concepts of gender and sexuality were complex and multifaceted, he explains. "It was European colonialism that has brought us to where we are today.”
Owunna has already photographed 34 subjects for “Limit(less),” predominantly in North America. He is currently running a Kickstarter campaign so he can shoot people he's connected with who live in Belgium, France, Portugal, the U.K., and Sweden.
“I do this work to not only shine a light on the fact that LGBT African people exist and love themselves, but to shine a light on the archaic notion that being African must be one thing. Being African has always been about abundance and limitless possibilities to express who we are.”
Check out Owunna's Kickstarter here.