by By Jake Naughton for New York Times
When Mikael Owunna returned to his family’s home in Pittsburgh after finishing a Fulbright Fellowship in Taiwan, it was unsettling. He and his family were originally from Nigeria, where gay Africans like him were scorned and mistreated. While grappling with long suppressed anxiety and depression because of that cultural tension, he saw an exhibition of the work of Zanele Muholi, the chronicler of queer experience in South Africa.
“That was the first time I had ever seen an image of another queer African person,” Mr. Owunna recalled. He was so moved by the experience, he began a project exploring the queer African diaspora.
There was only one problem — he didn’t know any queer Africans.
“That was part of the reason that I felt so isolated for so long,” he said. “In the U.S., I only had ever met two other queer African people in my entire life, and I was 23. And so that was part of what really was the motivation for me — was actually just to build community and to connect with people.”
So he went online, where he began posting on his Tumblr, again and again: “Are you an LGBT African immigrant? Please message me.” Suddenly, he knew dozens. Over the next six months, he spent hours on the phone connecting with potential subjects for his nascent project. At the same time, he researched queer narratives and experiences in histories of pre-colonial Africa so he could better understand past and present.
Until that moment, his experience of being part of the queer African diaspora had been shaped by his experiences with his family. Though they are accepting now, the journey to that point has been long and uncertain — he was outed when he was 15, and at 18, he was brought by his family back to Nigeria to exorcise the gay away.
“I grew up feeling invalidated from every single corner,” he said. “I never felt there was a space that existed for me. And so it was really important for me to tell my story and to tell the story of my community.”
But for Mr. Owunna, a project that began as filling a void and reclaiming space for a group left out of our narratives of both queerness and African-ness, quickly became an act of radical self-love and community building, too.
“I definitely thought I was just going to do something around people’s relationships with their parents, and all this pain,” he said. But one of the first people he photographed urged him to use his project to showcase love and empowerment instead, and so Limit(less) took on a new direction.
For the project, Mr. Owunna met and photographed more than 50 L.G.B.T.Q. Africans in 10 countries across Europe and North America (as well as Trinidad and Tobago). The resulting images are of queer Africans, by a queer African. At a moment when conversations around authorship and diversity of voices are pervasive, Mr. Owunna’s work exemplifies the power that comes from insiders documenting their own community.
“Look at all these people!” he said. “And, the person who created it? There’s something special there, there’s definitely something special there that is incredibly touching.”
The pictures are defiant and arresting, challenging notions of what queer people look like, what African people look like and the grace that comes from loving oneself. Bearing witness to that power had a profound impact on Mr. Owunna. Meeting so many proud L.G.B.T.Q. people of African descent taught him how to love himself.
Those who had the biggest impact on him exemplified love and acceptance that he would never have thought possible. This past fall, on a whirlwind trip to Europe, where he made his final images for the project, he met a queer Nigerian mother and their daughter, as well as a pair of gay identical twins from Kenya.
“Just seeing the idea of a queer African family and seeing it realized and seeing just so much love there, that really touched me,” Mr. Owunna said.
Mr. Owunna hopes his project is a small step toward reclaiming space for L.G.B.T.Q. African people and showing the power that comes from that identity.
“When I was growing up, these images would have meant so much to me,” he said. “It would have been incomparable from what I was going through at the time, to have that, to have a perspective that matched my own. This project is important for a lot of queer and trans Africans to know that we exist, we can exist and we can love ourselves. And I think from that space, that’s really radical.”
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