‘Saying something is “un-African” is saying a kaleidoscope can only be one color.’
Growing up, Mikael Owunna felt like the African and queer sides of his identity were at odds with each other.
Owunna, a 26-year-old Nigerian-American photographer who identifies as queer, had a difficult time finding a way to reconcile those two parts of himself.
“I experienced considerable homophobia in African spaces, and was told that being gay was ‘un-African’ – a disease from the West and white people,” he wrote.
But after personal reflection and seeing the work of Zanele Muholi, a black lesbian South African photographer he admires, he realized these two sides of his identity didn’t have to be at odds.
So Owunna created a photo project, “Limit(less),” which explores African and queer identities through style.
The portraits and stories he captures reflect the joy, rich history, and resilience of queer African people living outside the continent. The people he shoots are empowered, joyful, and confident — and, as Owunna quickly realized, so are their clothes.
For Owunna, the project is a love letter to those who are navigating two worlds and a reminder of how far he’s come.
“Coming from my personal experience where I experienced a lot of trauma around these two identities and didn’t feel like I could be both, it’s a way for me, with each click of my camera, to heal myself,” Owunna says.
Here are 13 memorable moments from the project thus far.
1. “I don’t look like a stud, I don’t look like a dapper queer. I look like something else…”
“…and that something else is a nod to where I come from. It’s me standing in my power, but it’s also distinctly you, like I have my little fedoras and those types of things, which I think do tip over into some of the queer aesthetics particularly, I would say, the queer aesthetics of people of color.”
2. “[My style is] more of a postmodern Angela Davis.”
“I don’t limit my African or LGBTQ identity to one form of expression, everything I wear is and can be a blend of these identities because that’s who I am and how I’m choosing to define it.”
3. “I’ve always been around white LGBTQ people and they didn’t really see me as queer.”
“I’ve overcome all of this by finding other black queer people and forming Black Queers Sweden, the feminist and anti-racist movement and independent organization for black LGBTQ+ people, where we can be ourselves; both black and queer.”
4. “The most beautiful part about being African/of the African Diaspora is our resilience.”
“To live and thrive as an African is an act of revolution and power. And for me, living my truth as an LGBTQ person is simply an extension of that power.”
5. “The first time I met another queer African person was indescribable, and reaffirmed my identities in ways that nothing else could have.”
“I hope that ‘Limit(less)’ reaches people who benefit from this affirmation. Too many of us think we’re the only one.”
6. “My style has been described as old Somali uncle.”
“Wiilo in Somali means, ‘girls who dresses like boy.’ It’s a nickname that I was given by my elders when I was younger. I am drawn to clothes that I feel both my dad and mom would have worn living in Somalia in the 70’s and 80’s.”
7. “We are dynamic, bold, and beautiful, and queer.”
“Our Africanness is only stronger with this identity because everyday we breathe, especially for African trans folk, we are resisting and revolutionary. That’s pretty damn African to me.”
8. “Starting in university I started to embrace all facets of who I am because that’s what I need to survive.”
“I have big plans for my future and in order for me to reach my full potential I need all of me at the finish line not just the pieces that white society can stomach.”
9. “Walking this world as a Black queer femme womxn, it is sometimes a struggle simply to survive.”
“Some days, makeup is my war paint and accessories are my armor. Some days, I decorate and adorn myself in a ritual of affirmation of all that I am. Not simply surviving, but thriving! I could be described as gaudy, often dripping in gold, and maybe a little bit gangsta. My style can be big and bold, taking up space in a world that tells me to be small. I make myself art in a world telling me that who I am is not beautiful. But I am not above leaving the house in sweatpants and uggs. It’s wack that women’s worth is wrapped up in whether we are considered appealing to others. My style is personal, political, playful, practical. It is a mix-and-match and mashup of all of the above.”
10. “I have for a long time thought that I could only fully embrace one of the two identities, that they were mutually exclusive.”
“When I decided to embrace my LGBTQ identity, I subconsciously pushed away my African identity. I found myself becoming what some call a ‘Bounty’ or ‘Oreo’, black on the outside and white on the inside. But prior to that I had already tried to push away my LGBTQ identity. It was complete denial… And then one day I thought to myself why not try embracing both identities, just for the sake of trying. I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach and feeling so light as if an enormous weight was lifted off of me. I never felt so complete and comfortable in my skin.”
11. “I’m a hard femme with an hourglass silhouette, a Goodwill budget, and a firm grasp of anti-capitalist rhetoric.”
“I wear whatever makes me feel comfortable and powerful and safe. I’m too clumsy to own a pair of un-ripped tights. I love wearing bold patterns that clash, things that could be pretty but aren’t, anything to remind people that when they look at me, I am looking right back at them.”
12. “My beard feels like a connection to my Muslim heritage, and it feels transgressive to wear it with this body, living the life I do.”
“To be honest, I think I reserve most of my Moroccan clothing for special occasions. I think the examples that have been given to me of powerful queerness have mostly been through a Euro-American lens (which is why this project is so important!).”
13. “As the cliche goes, my style is a way for me to express myself – and my multiple identities, those discovered and undiscovered, all play into that.”
“I guess my queerness, in part, fuels my ability to transcend the expected. And that is what I try to do with my style, transcend the expected and, in many ways, come home to myself.”
For photographer Owunna, the work isn’t done. He hopes to expand on “Limit(less)” in Europe this fall.
He’s photographed and interviewed 34 queer Africans for the project so far, primarily in North America. He’s crowdfunding an effort to cover the trip to Europe, where there are four times as many African immigrants, an ongoing refugee crisis, and the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and the far right; essentially, there are countless stories that need to be told.
And Owunna, centered, happy, and at peace with himself, is just the person to do it.