In Nigeria, there's a 14-year prison sentence for homosexual acts; and 10 years for Nigerians who belong to a 'gay organization', support same-sex marriages or display same-sex affection in public. The message is loud and clear, being LGBTQ is not only considered "un-African", it's considered criminal.
Well, in an effort to counter the opinion that being LGBTQ is un-African, queer Nigerian-American photographer, Mikael Owunna, created the Limitless photo series: portraits of LGBTQ Africans paired with interviews exploring themes of homophobia, race, African identity, abuse and healing.
Over the past couple of years, Mikael has photographed about 30 LGBTQ African immigrants for the series – and the result has been consistently breathtaking. Completely obsessed with his work, we at Konbini caught up with Mikael to discuss his inspiration, his struggles and his love for photography.
Konbini: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Mikael Owunna: I am Nigerian and Swedish and grew up in the US. I am also queer and a photographer whose work addresses social issues. With each click of my camera, I strive to envision what a free world can look like for those marginalized by the wider society.
What inspired you to document LGBTQ Africans?
This was inspired by my personal experiences growing up as a queer Nigerian. When I was "outted" at the age of 15, I was told that being gay was not of our culture – that it was something I had picked up from growing up in the US and being around white people.
The antidote proposed was to start sending me back to Nigeria twice a year. That by exposing me back to Nigerian, Igbo and a larger "African" culture that I would become straight again. Because clearly someone cannot be LGBTQ and African as those identities are "incompatible." I was eventually put through a series of exorcisms in Nigeria to "drive the gay out of me." This was incredibly traumatic and made me want nothing to do with being Nigerian.
A few years later I saw the work of Zanele Muholi on black lesbians in South Africa. I was so moved by her portraits as it was the first time in my life that I had seen a single image of a queer African person. It validated my identity in a way that I had never felt before and inspired me to start this work and connect the dots to my own experiences in diaspora.
"I was eventually put through a series of exorcisms in Nigeria to 'drive the gay out of me.'"
What are some of the struggles you've faced as a queer Nigerian-American?
In addition to the virulent homophobia I've faced in African spaces – including those in the diaspora – I also face daily racism here in the US as a black person. It is exhausting. Our communities are many times hostile to us, and the white LGBTQ community is incredibly racist as well.
It can feel so isolating. This is another reason that I do the work that I do – to create spaces where people can build community, connect and feel validated in who they are in spite of a world which daily tries to deny and reject them for being themselves.
How did you discover photography?
I began shooting 8 years ago. I was doing an exchange program at Oxford, and one of my friends at the time casually said that "we should get cameras and take pictures" while there. I got my first camera – a point & shoot – at that time with the help of my uncle, an amateur photographer. He taught me the basics of photography and composition and helped me buy my first DSLR that fall.
I kept shooting casually for the following 3 years and then did my first major photography project as a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan working with Taiwanese aboriginal youth. I had an amazing mentor there who showed me that it's possible to use art and photography to attack social justice questions and it's been a wrap since then!
What do you want people to take away from your portraits?
That it is possible to be LGBTQ, African and love yourself. Precolonial African understandings of gender and sexuality are so much more rich than the Western binaries we ascribe to today. For example in the 1600s in modern-day Angola, Nzinga of Ndongo was a female ruler who led a 40 year war of resistance against Portuguese encroachment.
Her title in her language, though, was "ngola" which means king, and she ruled in all male clothing with a harem of young men, dressed as women, who were her wives! So in the 1600s in Africa you basically had a butch queen with a harem of drag queens leading a war of resistance against Europeans! How badass is that? And even in Northern Nigeria today there are yan daudu - men who dress as women and occupy female roles in society- that have been there for centuries.
Ironically, it is European colonialism that has destroyed these understandings and brought the homophobia and transphobia that we now see today. I am excited for my project to be a part of this larger decolonial project to reclaim our heritage and redefine what it means to be "African" on our own terms.
"I am excited for my project to be a part of this larger decolonial project to reclaim our heritage and redefine what it means to be 'African' on our own terms."