Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Chukwuma Owunna, 26, is the visionary behind the lens of widely-celebrated photography collection Limit(less).
Since its birth three and a half years ago, the series has received global recognition for its beautiful, defiant depiction of LGBTQ+ African immigrants, highlighting the intersection of queerness and African-ness.
Speaking to SBS, the Nigerian-American photographer says that the acclaimed series was borne from his goal to create space for queer African people, and destroy the myth that queerness and homosexuality are 'un-African'.
This has much to do with his own story, he says, beginning with him being outed to his family at age 15.
Rather than support and acknowledgement, Owunna was faced with his family telling him they believed that "being gay was more or less an American and white thing". He was told he must return to his country of birth, Nigeria, so the culture could rid him of the 'gayness' that Western culture had ostensibly placed within him. Being gay was "un-African", they said.
He returned to Nigeria at the age of 18, and was forced to undergo various exorcisms. One traditional healer poured burning, stinging oil over Owunna, and he was also instructed to apply holy oil over his body every day.
Owunna, mentally destroyed by what he perceived to be as a unrelenting and unwinnable battle between his cultural and sexual identities, followed the instructions of the healers for more than a year and a half. He says the ordeal was "traumatic", explaining, "Experiences like that make you feel invalid and that you cannot exist as the person you are. It took me many years to heal."
When asked why this myth - that queerness is exclusively a Western phenomenon - exists, Owunna explains that the myth is exceptionally common in many African countries, but it actually comes from Western colonialism.
"Colonial legislation across Africa criminalised homosexuality, and orientalist thinkers like Sir Richard Burton hypothesised with his “sotadic zone” - that black Africans were so close to animals that we were only capable of the “natural” heterosexual impulse," Owunna explains. "That is the crazy racist logic that fed into this 'queerness is un-African' logic."
Owunna goes on to talk about his favourite example of pre-colonial queerness in Africa: Nzinga of Ndongo, who ruled modern-day Angola in the 1600s and led a 40-year war of resistance against Portuguese encroachment. Nzinga's title in her language, 'ngola', meant king - she ruled dressed in male clothing, and forced her harem of young men to dress as women - they were referred to as 'chibados', a third gender.
"So basically in the 1600s in Africa you had a butch queen with a harem of drag queens leading a war of resistance against European colonialism! How badass is that?" says Owunna.
After taking up the craft of photography as a college student years later, Owunna discovered South African photographer Zanele Muholi. He fondly remembers seeing an image from Muholi's series Faces and Phases - consisting of portraits of black lesbians in South Africa, all staring defiantly into the lens - as a transformative experience.
"After seeing Zanele Muholi’s work, I saw that there was another way, and that spaces for empowerment and self love for LGBTQ+ African people were possible," he says.
And with this, Limit(less) was born. A enormous, in-depth photography and interview series, Owunna says he began the project to "create this queer African home where self-love was possible and actualised".
"With each click of my camera I strive to envision what a free world can look like for black queer and trans people."
At the beginning of his project, Owunna struggled with one very major issue. Due to his constant back-and-forth between the US and Nigeria, Owunna knew very, very few queer African people in the US. "There isn’t like, a Grand Central Station full of LGBTQ+ African people," he laughs. He began doing call-outs via Tumblr, and ended up with plenty of willing participants.
Now, he's photographed 34 different queer African people, across the US and Canada - and he's looking to expand. Owunna is just about to finish up his day job and become a full-time photographer, and has started a Kickstarter to help him with his goal to travel to Europe so he can photograph European African immigrants for Limit(less).
"There are over four times as many Africans in Europe as in the United States – eight million versus about two million in the US," Owunna explains. "In addition, there is the massive refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of the far-right there as well. For me to tell an inclusive story across the LGBTQ+ African diaspora, I need to go to Europe to complete the project."
So, with the end of the Limit(less) project now in sight, what has the young, enigmatic photographer learned, particularly regarding the intersection of queerness and African-ness that he struggled with for so many years?
"When I started this project, I felt so broken about my identity... I didn’t love myself as a queer African person, and so I looked to each participant to see how they did it. I captured that on camera to create a light for myself. Now, 3 and a half years later, I feel so much more at peace than ever before."
Owunna now knows how to respond to someone who tries to tell him that being queer is 'un-African' - by simply telling them that they have no understanding of history.
"LGBTQ+ African people have always existed in African communities," he states. "It is homophobia that is un-African."