Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna’s project Limit(less) is helping redefine what it is to be African for LGBTQ Africans in Europe and North America.
Born in the United States to a Nigerian father and Nigerian-Swedish mother, Owunna spent most of his life outside of Nigeria but was sent back after he was outed as gay at age 15, where they hoped a traditional lifestyle could ‘cure’ him. Consumed with self-loathing, it was photography and travelling abroad that would begin his healing process.
I started this project because I felt so broken, so messed up, so torn apart about being queer and African.
In an interview with Quartz, Owunna spoke of the impact and inspiration he felt seeing the work of South African photographer Zanele Muholi in 2013, which showed black South African lesbians gazing straight into the camera, calm and unafraid. “I had lived 23 years of my life and had never seen an image of a queer African person.”
Months later, he began Limit(less) to focus on LGBTQ Africans in the Diaspora, clothed in elements of modern and traditional dress “to visually debunk the myth that being queer is un-African.” In bright colours and frames filled with light, Owunna portrays his subjects as confident, positive individuals. “Each click of my camera, I see as trying to capture what does a free world look in which black, queer and trans people can just be whoever they want to be.”
Owunna, now 26, hopes to extend his project to photographing subjects across the African continent, but he is acutely aware of the real dangers faced by LQBTQI Africans and the privilege his own US citizenship affords him. Many African countries still have colonial-era penal codes that outlaws being gay, and some still enforce those laws.