Cover Star: Nigerian-Swedish Photographer, Mikael Owunna
April 17, 2018
Mikael Owunna is a Nigerian-Swedish artist and photographer whose work centres around questions of identity, being and place. Raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he is a two-time Fulbright scholar whose projects: I am Atayal!, Limit(less) and Infinite Essence – have collectively exhibited in Asia, Europe and North America and been featured in media ranging from The New York Times, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Plus, Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue to the official outlet of Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture.
Read our interview with him below.
TRT: You have a biomedical engineering degree and now you are a celebrated artist and photographer. How did the transition happen?
MIKAEL: It’s strange honestly hearing you call me a “celebrated” artist, but I’ll roll with it! I only studied biomedical engineering because my parents wanted me to. During university, I was put through a series of exorcisms during a family trip to Nigeria, after which I was left very distraught for many years. I was seeking subconsciously an outlet to express myself in the aftermath, and 6 months after the first exorcism destiny struck. I was slatted to go to Oxford for a summer and off-handedly one of my friends suggested that we both bring cameras and take pictures over the summer. I said yes. I mentioned it then to my uncle who lived in the area and discovered that he had been an amateur photographer for over 30 years and had started when he was in Nigeria. He helped me get started with photography, and all of that was almost exactly 9 years ago. After university, I went to Taiwan for a year as a Fulbright scholar, met an amazing mentor with whom I collaborated on a photography and art project for Taiwanese aboriginal youth and from there I knew that my path was tied to photography, I just didn’t know how to get there. Now, after many many setbacks and personal doubts along the way and 5 years, I’m now full time with photography. It’s so strange to think about but I’ve known in my heart this was my voice, even in the darkest times for me personally.
TRT: As an artist and photographer, your work centres on themes of masculinity and LGBT acceptance. Why is that important for you?
MIKAEL: I actually don’t think my work looks at masculinity very much because masculinity bores me. I more focus on women and femmes, as that is where I have built community since I was a child. LGBT acceptance is important for me because I grew up feeling like I could not be both queer and African. I wanted to bridge those spaces and create emancipatory spaces for marginalized people both like and unlike me in my work.
TRT: Your photography project Limit(less) received critical acclaim. How would you describe the impact that the project has had?
MIKAEL: Hmmm……. again it’s still strange for me to hear things like that, especially as I have been so deep in making the project for 4 years. And just now with shooting being completed about 6 months ago, am I finally having space to look back on things in spaces like this. As the creator, it’s hard for me to externalize myself from the work and think about the impact that it has, but it is a first of its kind project on LGBTQ Africans in diaspora, especially at this scale (over 50 people in 10 countries across North America, the Caribbean and Europe). Which is kind of sad as it is almost 2020, but we are completely invisible. And so I know that for the people I’ve spoken to among LGBT Africans in diaspora there has been a feeling of feeling seen for the first time. It’s really beautiful. I just imagine what this project would have meant for me to see when I was 15 and had just been outed to my parents and was feeling completely isolated and alone. It would have been a game-changer. I’m happy to have been able to produce something that speaks to us today and in the future as well!
TRT: How have you been able to navigate being queer and African and how does it impact on your work?
MIKAEL: It has been very hard. I can talk at length about this, but my African identity is still something I struggle with. I have dealt with so much personal trauma being queer and African, which has exacerbated my displacement from my Igbo identity that was already bound to be tenuous growing up in America thousands of miles from “home”. And so I create new homes for myself and others in my work. I gave up looking for others to have spaces that I felt I could fit into, because I don’t really fit any neatly being Nigerian, part Swedish, queer, black, growing up in America, into anime and fantasy, so many things. So I really say fuck boxes to be honest and my work lays claim to being and place where there has been none for me.
TRT: Your work is a form of activism. How would you describe the role of art in causing social change?
MIKAEL: I don’t see myself as an activist personally, but I do see art as crucial in social change. We can imagine a way out of no way, new realities and ways of beings that haven’t even been conceived of yet and bring them into this world. Maybe they won’t come to pass for hundreds of years, or never, but speaking these dreams into existence gives power to all of our voices.
TRT: Do you see yourself moving back to be fully involved in LGBT activism in Nigeria?
MIKAEL: No. Not in the foreseeable future, as I still have a lot of unresolved trauma that I’m continuing to process (and which this project was part of that process), but who knows?
TRT: Who inspires you?
MIKAEL: This particular project was inspired by the magnificent work of Zanele Muholi on black lesbians in South Africa! I saw that show in my hometown of Pittsburgh in the US and it stirred in me that it was possible to do something like this. That’s what groundbreakers like Zanele and Rotimi Fani-Kayode have done, creating space for us to dream and be inspired. Without Zanele’s work I may have never started this project. It means a lot to see yourself reflected and it makes you driven to create as well. These dreamers and African creators are at the core of my soul, from the masters Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé to modern geniuses like Osborne Macharia and Omar Victor Diop, I see dreamers who are crafting new realities for all of us with their work. That pushes me to dream more and bigger with my own work as well, and I am so grateful for this incredible cadre and legacy of African photographers that I come from.
TRT: What is your hope for the LGBT community in Africa?
MIKAEL: Personal freedom and emancipation in whatever forms that means to you.
Current songs on your playlist: BLACKPINK – “어머나 (OMONA)”
Vacation Spot: Stockholm in the summer
Favourite Nigerian food: Pounded Yam & Egusi Soup
Dream Date: Surprise trip to a rollercoaster park in Japan with some of the highest in the world, including fast passes 🙂