Fashioning Queer African Identities
By Maya Acharya
Limit(less) is a decolonial documentary photography project that aims to debunk the myth that LGBTQI identities are “un-African” by using personal expression, fashion and style. The project, created by Mikael Owunna, and shot thus far in the US, Sweden, Canada, the UK and Trinidad and Tobago, is now preparing for its second trip to Europe.
Limit(less) has been a deeply personal project for Mikael, who describes himself as a Queer Nigerian Swedish American photographer. It might be a mouthful to some, but as he points out, it’s important to name all the different parts of his background that are meaningful to him. Having grown up in the US with a Nigerian-Swedish mother and Nigerian father, he says his family background has been integral to informing his identity growing up — perhaps most significantly, his queer identity.
As a teenager, Mikael felt that his queerness existed in a space of tension with his African heritage, and he struggled to feel that he could embody both these identities — an experience which was to form the spring board for Limit(less).
“At the time, I hadn’t been affected as much by the rhetoric of ‘this is un-African’, but I knew, due to the religiosity of my family, that my queerness was unacceptable. And so there was a feeling that if my family ever found out, this would go terribly,” Mikael explains.
When he finally was outed at the age of fifteen, Mikael's anxieties were confirmed as a cascade of negative experiences began with his family, most taking place in Nigeria, where religious ceremonies were perfomed in order to “drive the gay out of him.”
“These negative experiences were very much localised in a Nigerian context, and created an even deeper estrangement from my Nigerian identity. Queerness was like an additional form of separation I felt on top of the isolation and distance you feel growing up as an immigrant abroad. When I was told my queerness was unacceptable, un-African, these ideas were weaponised against me so that I felt driven away from my culture,” he says.
It was over the course of several years, of graduating college, entering LGBTQ spaces, and completing his first photography project in Taiwan, that Mikael understood the power of photography and art as a tool for social justice. This, combined with an increasing knowledge of colonial history and oppression of black people was what led him to use queer African style to challenge the myth that queerness and Africanness were separate and incompatible. Mikael recalls two defining moments in this process that were central to his own journey.
The first was during an exhibition in Pittsburgh, by South African photographer Zanele Muholi, consisting of large scale portraits of black lesbians in South Africa.
“It was the first time in my life I had ever seen an image of a queer African. Representation is so important; when you’ve never seen an image of a person who has had an experience like yours, and you’ve been told your whole life you can’t exist, you have nothing to debunk that.”
The second instance that profoundly changed Mikael’s perspective was learning more about queer African history.
“When I began the groundwork for Limit(less), I reached out to one of my queer Nigerian friends who sent me a ton of pdfs, journal articles and writing that examined the colonial legacy surrounding queerness in Africa, and I was just shocked to realise how African societies have historically been at the forefront of understanding gender and sexuality. And that queer and trans people were not only accepted, but often revered as the gatekeepers of their communities.
For instance, I read about a female leader in what is now Angola, called Nzinga of Ndongo, who led a decades long resistance movement against Portuguese colonial rule. In modern texts she is now referred to as Queen Nzinga, but in her language she was referred to as Ngola, which means King. She ruled dressed in male clothing and had a harem of young men dressed as women who were her wives. So, in effect it was this butch queen with a bunch of drag queens as wives. In the 17th century, in Angola!”
“The esteem and regard for these sorts of individuals is in opposition to much of what we see on the African continent today, largely because of the effects of anti-buggery laws and the policing of gender and sexuality that came from European colonisers and orientalist thinkers who shaped policy at the time.”
It is because of this history that Mikael refers to the project as one of decolonisation: a way for queer Africans to reclaim an understanding of gender and sexuality for themselves. ”We really need to understand that LGBTQ people have always existed on the African continent and that homophobia and transphobia were largely these western constructs that were imported, imposed and inform our identity to this day,” he says.
He also reflects on the role of agency and responsibility when it comes to those who have been hurt, much like himself, by homophobic and anti-queer mentality. For him, acknowledging these colonial legacies does not mean ignoring those that are struggling to find acceptance within their communities. Nor does it mean elevating responsibility from governments and politicians who take measures against LGBTQ people.
“It’s a balancing act. When you’re offering support to people who have been hurt by colonialism, that is a decolonial project. So when you frame it like that, you are not saying that people who criminalise homosexuality in say, Nigeria, do not have agency and responsibility, but you understand the context in which those decisions have been made, has been a crucible of colonisation. So for me it is important, as we try to counter narratives in these countries, to talk about it as a decolonial struggle.”
These discussions come up regularly during the shoots. “Although the focus is very much on the individual, many of the people I photograph bring up this legacy, because it’s at the heart of the project, and I’m excited to keep having and expanding these conversations,” Mikael says.
Another important part of the project is to show how the lives of individuals in the photos are connected, while also illustrating that African is not a homogenous identity. One of the initial ways was in which Mikael incorporated this diversity was by having each individual bring an African print to the shoot, if they had one. Eventually though, he realised that this was restricting expression, rather that bolstering it.
“You are still an African person regardless,” he explains. “You don’t have to be rocking a print to express your African identity. However you express your style, is an expression of Africanness, period. So that’s when I let the reigns go – and more recent shoots show how people’s expression may or may not incorporate a stereotypical view of what Africanness is.”
It is fitting that the photography project itself reflects the experiences of many of those photographed: an ongoing journey of acceptance, intrinsically linked to both the personal and the historical. Mikael reveals that when he first started the project, he himself was falling into a trap of a white supremacist gaze.
“I was trying to reproduce these images of pain, talking to the subjects about relationships with family, photographing people crying and that kind of thing. That’s what I was thinking about doing, because that’s what someone growing up in a white supremacist context knows. All we know is to produce images of pain around the black body because that’s what we see and consume. And that goes for people of colour in general.”
Eventually, Mikael realised he instead wanted the focus to be on empowerment and agency, which is how fashion emerged as key. Fashion, he says, is a way to express yourself, to push against oppressive systems, to defy expectations of how society tells you to be.
“It all has to do with defying limits. We often think of marginalized identities as producing limits; there are tangible political and social limits placed on marginalized people. For example, being told I couldn’t be in LGBTQ spaces because I was black. There were always limits in terms of whom I could be and in what spaces I could move. But this project highlights how, despite these limits, we can exceed them. Africanness is not restrcted, it’s not a fixed thing. Africanness is about abundance and limitless ways in which you can be yourself.”
All photography by Mikael Owunna.
To find out more about the project visit limitlessafricans.com