Limit(less) is a photography project documenting the lives of African LGBTQ people in the diaspora. Christina Fonthes speaks to photographer and writer Mikael Owunna the mind behind Limit(less) as he joins the new wave of African creatives who have rejected invisibility.
Mikael identifies as a queer Nigerian-American and says the project has been part of his personal healing journey.
“I was outed to my parents when I was younger. I had a negative experience, and this project has been part of the healing process. When I started doing this project it was about figuring out how to navigate these questions for myself. Every time I would shoot somebody, I would shoot these uplifting, vibrant images of African LGBTQ people loving themselves. I did it because I didn’t love myself at the time – I was looking to them to show me the way. I was seeing them as my guideposts on what self-love can look like. With every click of my camera, I was trying to capture this world for black queer and trans people – that I could exist in, that I could be whole in. That’s become my personal journey – learning self-love through these amazing people that I’ve met along the way. A free world is where you can be whoever you want to be, period.”
The project uses queer African style to debunk the myth that being LGBTQ is “un-African”.
“Being an African LGBTQ person is complicated. We are too African, too unAfrican, too queer, and not queer enough,” Mikael said. “Ours are narratives that have been displaced, hijacked, forgotten and erased. Ours are bodies that have learnt to carry shame as though it were a birthright. The truth is we are here. Our stories, our struggles, and experiences are valid,”
Mikael pointed to the work of other African creatives as a sign that things are changing.
The name of the project is an expression of freedom and boundless possibilities for communities that have previously had to self-censor and conceal.
“It comes from the idea that there are structural ‘limits’ on who we are as black LGBTQ people, as African LGBTQ people, that come from society. These limits are white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia in our communities, racism in the West, xenophobia in the West – all are structural limits that try to reduce who we are; but, despite those limits, there are ‘limitless’ ways for us to express our identities, for us to find self-love and self-acceptance.”
The inspiration for Limit(less) came not from Africa or America but from Asia where Mikael had been working on a project.
“I did a photography project as a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan working with Taiwanese Aboriginal youth. We did a cultural empowerment project using art and photography as a way for them to explore and express their cultural identities. That project was the first time I started to think about photography as a tool for social justice. When I came back to America, I saw Zanele Muholi’s – a black lesbian South African photographer – exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art. I was walking through the exhibition, and I saw this wall of portraits like boom, boom, boom! Dozens of portraits of queer African people! Never in my life had I seen an image of a queer African person. It was so powerful. I had never seen anybody who resembled me in my entire life. Seeing Muholi’s work inspired me to try to connect the dots to my own experiences in the diaspora.”
Once he had decided to start the project, Mikael had to find subjects to photograph. His own network wasn’t that large so he used social media.
“I only knew two African LGBTQ people in America – I was 23 years old. I had a blog on Tumblr and I started posting on there. To my surprise, people started reaching out. I started having conversations with people, and I ended up with 40 preliminary interviews in about 5 months.”
Once Mikael started talking to African LGBTQ people it became clear that he’d need to change the lens that the project looked through.
“I was still trying to figure out the concept. At the time, I was replicating white-supremacist understandings of the black queer and trans body – our torrid relationships with our parents and how we’re so broken. As I was talking to more people I saw there was a hunger for more positive and uplifting imagery. In terms of selecting people, safety was a big concern – I had to make sure they were fully comfortable with being ‘out’ in such a visible project.”
Much work around black LGBTQ communities had previously looked at the communities from the outside and often resorted to a form of fetishisation presenting the subjects as poor, broken black gay people – unwanted and unloved. Mikael was determined to present a new narrative.
“After I started the project I read a quote by Toni Morrison talking about the white gaze in black literature. She says that when she would read works by black writers written in the 40s and 50s, she could hear the narrator talking over her shoulder to the white viewer. The narrator would be explaining things that they wouldn’t have to explain to a black person. In many art forms, especially for black artists there is still a white supremacist gaze that needs to be interrogated. When I first started doing photography in my teens, I would go to Nigeria once a year, and there is a shift in my photos of Nigeria from my teens to when I finished college. At the beginning, it was the poverty pornography you see from white people. And then you see a shift – you start to see people smiling, you start to see colour.”
While Mikael was determined to reclaim the black queer narrative through his work, he was conscious that there is more than one story to be told.
“The situation in the vast majority of cases is bad – it is unsafe, and it is unacceptable what is going on for African LGBTQ people. But that is not to say that we do not have joy – that we do not love ourselves. It’s a multi-faceted story. The few images I saw of African LGBTQ people before I saw Muholi’s work were only of us being persecuted. That can mentally affect you if there is no alternative – you think ‘that’s my only destiny’. There’s way more to us than that.”
The project itself has evolved as the subjects of the photography have brought their own sense of style to the photo-shoots. This has helped to showcase the individuality and freedom of the community.
“I let people style themselves. In terms of the aesthetic, I’ve been exploring more of people’s own self-expression. I used to ask people to bring any African prints that they had to the shoots, I don’t do that anymore because it limits what our understandings of Africaness is. Africaness is not about having wax print in the background or rocking a gele. There is more to being African than that.”
Mikael acknowledges the power of imagery and argues that racist or homophobic imagery has been spread from the West all around the world. Limit(less) is one small step in the opposite direction.
“Imagery has always been important. Imagery was used by colonialists and white-supremacists to denigrate and degrade black people. Across America there are thousands of relics from the antebellum South or even post-civil war with black people as caricatures. When I lived in Taiwan, people would call me racist stereotypes that they got from western media. They would see me and start screaming out the names of basketball players or try to see if my skin would wipe off. If you are in a marginalised group and that is the only thing around you it, it limits your understanding of who you can be. For all of the problems with President Obama, the fact that you had a black president expands your understanding of who you can be in this world. Images work similarly. Especially with the rise of the far right, it’s important for us African LGBTQ people to see affirming images of ourselves.”
Among the many barriers Mikael tries to breach in his work is the one between North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“I fought really hard to get North African participation. A lot of North Africans I met don’t see themselves as Africans, so there was that barrier. Also, in terms of safety concerns there were a lot more North Africans that were not ‘out’. I wanted to show people that indigenous African identities also include North Africans. I’m not including white people in this project because it is about how indigenous African identities have been reshaped by colonialism. People forget that North Africa is a part of Africa too.”
Mikael is keen for Limit(less) to become the largest digital archive of LGBTQ African immigrant narratives. To do this, he will need the project to expand beyond its American roots. To help him branch out into Europe, he has launched a Kickstarter campaign.
“All of the narratives we see are US-centric, and in English. I want to open up our understanding of ‘diaspora’ in a larger sense. There are four times as many Africans in Europe than in America. It is crucial for me to share stories from the European African diaspora. Also, Europe has a specific context with the refugee crisis and the rise of the far right – I think there is an interesting convergence of factors that are important for me to explore. I’ve also been learning French, so that I can start sharing more narratives in the French language. Everything is US-centric and anglo-centric, and I’m trying to break those barriers by coming to Europe.”
Limit(less) is halfway through its kickstarter – click here to support.
Christina Fonthes aka CongoMuse is a poet, writer, and director. She explores various themes ranging from mental health-related issues, religion, sexuality, to the everyday and the mundane, based on her own experiences. Christina has completed residencies with Royal Exchange Theatre, Home, and Community Arts North West and is currently doing a residency at Commonword Cultureword through their Women in the Spotlight programme.
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