Bry Reed ‘20
For some artists, their work is a journey in search of themselves. For others, their work is an adventure in creating the future they want to see. For Mikael Owunna, a Swedish-Nigerian artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his art is a reclamation project for queer Africans.
In his latest book, Limitless Africans, Owunna shows us the rich and beautiful lives of queer African immigrants around the world. For me, as an African Studies major and Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS) minor, studying artists like Owunna offers an opportunity to delve deeper into the revolutionary work that Black artists are doing to uncover history as they create.
Owunna’s work merges archival research and art as he uses his experience as a historian for inspiration. In creating Limitless Africans, Owunna engages the present and the past by filling in the gaps in the historical record. Using vibrant portraits from across Europe and North America he simultaneously tells stories of precolonial African history while also showing the lives of queer African immigrants all over the world.
This reclamation project, however, is one rooted in Owunna’s personal experience as a young queer man navigating family, sexuality, and culture. As a teenager, who came out in the age of MySpace, Owunna’s declaration of his sexuality as a queer African was met with backlash from family members who deemed queerness “un-African”. These comments coupled with a lack of representation left him longing for signs that queer Africans existed.
At 23, Owunna saw queer African folx for the first time in Zanele Muholi’s photography as she centers Black South African lesbians. Years later, in 2019 his own book now shines as an example of the expansive queer African community around the globe. This project shows how a silence in the archive combined with an artist’s desire to find themselves produces dynamic artwork.
When I flip through the stories of queer African immigrants, I am astounded at the power of storytelling to repair the violences of history. With each portrait comes a story of belonging, bravery, and the brazen reality of trying to live freely in a dangerous world. By bringing precolonial queer African history to the forefront of his work, Owunna connects to a larger history of Black folx using art and literature to reclaim their narratives that are routinely silenced in the archives.
Right now Limitless Africans sits on my bookshelf next to Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. These three authors are poignant examples of the legacy of Black art and literature as tools to repair the violences facing Black folx in the archives. Each of these writers used their talent to create worlds of multifaceted and nuanced Black life in their work.
For Black women like Naylor and Morrison, their fiction writing became a space to tell the stories of other Black women experiencing joy, love, heartbreak, grief, and disaster. For Baldwin, he wrote nonfiction and fiction that challenged the status quo of Black life in the United States and abroad. Collected they each pushed who use audiences who read their work to grapple with stories of Black folx living full lives (no matter how heartbreaking).
As I continue to study art and literature as radical reclamation, Owunna stands out as an example of how photography allows audiences to see queer Black folx in a whole new way. The portraiture is tangible. These are not abstract figures plucked from his mind. They live and breathe. They have families and stories of traveling across oceans and time. They have fought for their space and are taking their time to figure out the joys of life.
Using different locations, lighting, and techniques allows Owunna to utilize and subvert the tangibility of photography. The shots are real as he captures the moment in real time, but playing with angles, landmarks, and nature allows Owunna the opportunity to create new, multilayered stories of immigration and decolonization. Owunna is similar to artists like Kehinde Wiley who use their mediums to bring Black folx into our collective artistic imaginations.
In the future I hope to see more Black folx subverting artistic conventions and defying genre as acts of radical reclamation. There are endless opportunities to bring precolonial history, queerness, and Black feminisms to the center after they have spent so long in the margins. The potential for a renaissance of irrespectable Black creators is reaching a fever pitch as our ever changing world demands new stories and new visions.
Bry Reed is an Africana Major and Gender and Sexuality Studies Minor. She can be reached for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org