Mikael Owunna: Freedom, Queer Identity, and Being African
Mikael Owunna wears many hats and does a great job doing so. Growing up, the Nigerian-born photographer knew of no other LGBTQ Africans (personally) and didn’t see any represented in culture nor media. At the tender age of 15-years-old, Owunna was violently outed to his family as queer. His family blamed America and the influence of Western culture for his sexual identity; resulting in Owunna being sent back to Nigeria twice a year with the hopes that his sexuality would disappear. But it didn’t.
Instead, he found common ground between being African and queer. Three and a half years ago, Owunna did something that needed to be done. He created a platform where queerness and African-ness could overlap and reside in the same sphere. During this process, his work became a part of his story while also providing a way for him to heal. Eventually, this platform would become the birthing ground for his captivating project, Limit(less), which aims to feature individuals that are not only African and queer but anything else in between.
Describing the start of Limit(less) Mikael said, “At the beginning, I just would put out calls on social media and pray. And I was lucky enough that people started responding. After someone indicates interest, I usually talk on the phone or Skype with them for an hour or two and gauge out connection there. If it is strong, I feel confident that we can create magic together. Then, usually, two or three months later we do a shoot in and around their homes in clothing they pick from their wardrobes to represent themselves and their identities.”
“Although Limit(less) is making great strides, it’s hard not to think about the legal implications being queer has, particularly in Nigeria. In the Northern region of Nigeria, same sexual contact is punishable by stoning to death. Whereas in the South, same sexual contact carries a prison term along with organizations that promote homosexuality being illegal, which carries a prison term as well. But despite this, there are several grassroots organizations doing work on the ground and carving out spaces for LGBTQ people,” he said.
One thing that Owunna wants people to glean from his project is that LGBTQ African individuals exist. “We love ourselves and we are literally everywhere that you find Africans.” In terms of acceptance of sexuality as a whole in Nigeria, Owunna is optimistic that attitudes will change. “Attitudes got much worse in the past 30 years with the influx of American evangelical missionaries across the continent, so just as they got worse, they can and also will swing back,” he mentioned.
More specifically, “Attitudes among young people in Nigeria is already shifting. And pre-colonial African understandings of gender were way more nuanced than anything Europe had or has to offer to this day,” he said. “In northern Nigeria, there is a group of men called the yan daudu. These are men that dress in all women’s clothing, occupy female roles in society, and some sleep with other men,” he said. “This was an indigenous multifaceted understanding of gender and sexuality that has an indigenous word for it as well as showing its firm place in the history of the culture.” Contrary to popular to current opinions, Africans are not inherently homophobic. It’s all a myth that Owunna is trying to debunk with his work.
When Owunna was unwillingly outed to his family, that moment was filled with so much hurt, anger, and turmoil. However, through that experience, Owunna has been able to reflect back on what he would tell his 15-year-old self. “Everything in life passes. And just as the moment is full of so much pain, that too will pass and you will heal and find love in yourself-again- even if you don’t believe it right now after what just happened to you. It will happen,” he said.
Through every picture he takes and the stories that he shares, Owunna is debunking the myth, that being part of the LGBTQ community is ‘un-African.” He is creating a space for those queer Africans who may be afraid to tell their friends and family. But for those questioning their sexuality, Owunna has some real and honest advice, “Put yourself and your needs first, always. And that includes your safety and security. You also don’t have to necessarily “come out” in order to find love in yourself. That is also a Western identity construct, but whatever you find joy and love in, and brings you to a place of healing.”
This fall, Owunna will be in Europe for three months to finish Limit(less) there. He’s also in the process of planning his next long-term documentary project, which he has a few strong leads for. “My photography is becoming more conceptual and that is something that I am starting to think more and more seriously about,” he added. If you are interested in learning more or being a part of the Limit(less) series, head over to Limitlessafricans.com for more information.
Click here to view more of Mikael Owunna’s incredible work.