Black Lives Matter.
This will always be true. In this specific field, there is more that needs unpacking: anti-blackness, colorism, commodification—the list goes on. These discussions are more segmented through the African diaspora, that has uprooted and shifted the makeup of African and black identity globally. One example is the idea that being LGBTQ+ is “un-African” and caused by an exposure to the West. This Western exposure however, is the same that brought binary ideologies in theology and sexuality in tow. It’s also responsible for robbing, removing, and erasing cultures and resources from an entire continent throughout history.
LGBTQ+ lives do exist throughout Africa, but with decades of anti-LGBTQ+ evangelical crusades and colonization its subversion seeks a level of myth in the homes of deeply conservative Africans. With more work being done in areas to exhume these stories from the sunken place, it is becoming harder for naysayers to use the “absence” of evidence as a turning point.
As we explore African identity, the issue has another home away from homeland. LGBTQ+ in diaspora have an intersection of multitudes: from tribes to new nationalities, generational divides, and the scope of life and freedoms they must navigate within this vary greatly. These stories are a piece of a larger story that encourage and ultimately create a more accurate view of our history.
Mikael Owunna’s Limit(less) project showcases just that. The photo docu-series paints a portrait of African queer life that is sorely missing in the media. Owunna, a Nigerian-Swedish American photographer, speaker and writer based out of Washington D.C., specializes in documentary and portrait work. Their work focuses on elevating marginalized voices, as well as analyzing white supremacy, colonization and anti-blackness in popular culture and mainstream media.
Limit(less) pairs positive, hopeful imagery with the unique stories of LGBTQ Africans. The photos themselves are full of color painting an image that is as vibrant and diverse as the subjects interviewed. The interview portion goes further by delving into personal identities through style and traditional symbolism, family life, and the “gap” between being LGBTQ and African. WUSSY had a Q&A interview with Owunna about the project and its aspirations moving forward.
What are some key inspirations in this project?
This project was born out of personal experiences. I am queer Nigerian-American and grew up feeling very torn up about having these two identities. When I was outted as a teenager, I was told that being gay was “not of my culture” and the antidote that was proposed was sending me back to Nigeria a lot to “get the gay out of me.” LGBTQ identities were construed as a “western” or “white” thing, and so- in many ways - I was an inherent contradiction as a queer African person.
I started this project 3 years ago to break down this colonial binary that says that one cannot be both LGBTQ and African. And the project was directly inspired by the work of Zanele Muholi - a black lesbian South African photographer - who did a portrait series called Faces & Phases on black lesbians in South Africa. I wanted to connect the dots to our experiences in the LGBTQ African diaspora and tell a story of freedom and emancipation through my images.
What is the importance of sharing LGBTQ+ African stories?
It’s important because we have close to zero media representation, and the little representation we do have is overwhelmingly negative - showing us being brutalized, assaulted and oppressed in our home countries and around the world.
That psychologically affects you as a minority group. When I heard from family members that it was “un-African” to be gay, I had no media representation to disprove that. No LGBTQ African friends at the time and nothing in the media that I could turn to and see - “well, no, what they’re saying is wrong”
So I’m excited to create and share images and stories that highlight my community and especially because the images are meant to uplift. They are meant to make you rejoice! And for people who grow up in a world telling us that we cannot and should not exist, that is the type of affirmation that can transform your experience. Just as seeing Zanele Muholi’s portraits of black lesbians in South Africa did for me.
How do you think the usage of style and symbolism plays into the overarching view of black identity and pride?
Well I think there has definitely been a really big revival in interest in traditional African clothing styles and traditions especially over the last 15 years or so. It’s a huge space of reclamation, particularly for diasporic African communities. It’s a space of pride that pushes up against white supremacist myths that made us ashamed of our African-ness for generations.
Part of this project aims past colonial borders to venture into the array of unique struggles experienced by the African diaspora. How does this shift interact with the work? What are some challenges being presented?
Looking in diaspora the recurring theme that comes up again and again is racism - particularly from white LGBTQ people. As LGBTQ African immigrants, we can end up in this weird space where we might feel denied our African identity by homophobic/transphobic Africans while simultaneously being denied our LGBTQ identity by the severe racism in white LGBTQ spaces. That is an aspect of our lives and identities that is present in almost every single interview I have done, and it dominates how we experience and walk through the world every day.
What is the general notion or feeling you wish to get across?
Joy. Emancipation. Freedom. With each click of the camera I am envisioning what a free world for black queer and trans people could look like.
How does one get involved in supporting the project?
I just launched a Kickstarter to bring Limit(less) to Europe and complete the project with a final round of shots of the LGBTQ African diaspora there. Any and all support is appreciated!