Limit(less): A Groundbreaking New Photo Project On LGBTQ African Style In The U.S.

Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna explores the visual aesthetic of LGBTQ Africans in the U.S. with his 'Limit(less)' series.

Limit(less) is a new multimedia photography series that seeks to explore how LGBTQ Africans in the diaspora are using visual aesthetics to navigate their cultural, sexual and gender identities. Through photos and interviews with first and second generation LGBTQ African immigrants, the nascent documentary project hopes to deconstruct colonial notions that LGBTQ Africans are somehow “un-African."

We reached out to Mikael Owunna, the Nigerian-American photographer and writer behind the project to find out more about Limit(less) and what he hopes to achieve with the series.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Who is Mikael Owunna?

A bit about myself: I am Igbo, Swedish, black, immigrant, American and queer. I live at the intersection of many identities and questions of identity have always fascinated me because of this. Who am I, though? Honestly, I'm not sure. That is a question I'm still working on every single day, and my project is a part of that process.

How did you begin putting the Limit(less) Africans project together?

The project began pretty spontaneously actually. I had just returned to the U.S. from my Fulbright scholarship in Taiwan, where I worked on a collaborative art and photography project which was featured in a national museum exhibit there. I was back living at home full time with my family for the first time since I was 13I had gone to boarding schooland being back brought back much of my fear and anxiety about my sexuality in my Nigerian family. I had lived a relatively free life, especially during college, so being back at home where certain topics, like my sexuality, were strictly "not to be discussed," was a shock to my system.

During this time a visiting friend dragged me to the Carnegie Museum of Arts. When I walked into the main exhibit hall, I saw an entire wall dedicated to Zanele Muholi's portrait series, Faces and Phases, and I stopped dead in my tracks. As a queer African person going through what I was at home, seeing that work resonated with me on a level I had never felt before. With a crucial push from some fellow Duke alumni after I saw the exhibit, I decided to begin researching and launch my own photography project exploring the lives of LGBTQ Africans in diaspora.

Limit(less) by Mikael Owunna

Why did you choose to focus primarily on style and visual aesthetics for the project?

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, I am personally bored with depicting stereotypical one-dimensional narratives of pain for the white gaze. Growing up in America, my initial impulse was to replicate this gaze in my work, and I spent months envisioning a video documentary centered around our experiences of trauma as LGBTQ Africans. My conversations with other artists including Atane Ofiaja and Siobhan McGuirk and participants in the project helped shift and then correct my lens through which I was approaching the project. Yes, we face terrible homophobia and transphobia both inside and out of African immigrant communities, but our lives are multidimensional and we are still people. We still laugh, experience joy, love and more. We find ways to express ourselves and live out full lives as LGBTQ Africans despite these ostensible "limits" on our existence, and our visual aesthetics can be a key part of that.

For me, focusing on visual aesthetics also cracks at a second issue with homophobia and transphobia in African communities. The constant refrain I heard growing up was that being "gay" was somehow "un-African." It was really odd hearing this since I was living proof of someone who was both gay and African, but this language is still regularly used against LGBTQ Africans even though it has been historically debunked many times over. When many people are saying you can't be LGBTQ and African, I find it interesting how LGBTQ Africans blend these two aspects of their identity visually and overcome this artificially imposed binary.

You state on the Limit(less) website that your documentation will help to "deconstruct colonial notions that LGBTQ Africans are somehow 'un-African.'"

I got at this a bit in the last question, but there are many people who say that being LGBTQ is "un-African," and sadly most if not all of these people in my experience are fellow Africans. When I started the research for my project, the overriding question I started with was pretty simple: "Why? Why did other Africans tell me that I couldn't exist as a queer person or was simply a product of Western corruption? Why did being queer seem to 'invalidate' my African-ness in their eyes?"

Doing research with the help of a queer Nigerian friend revealed the answer to methis line of thinking was a product of colonialism. There is significant scholarship that shows that people we would now identify as "LGBTQ" have always existed, including in precolonial African societies. Moreover, the colonial roots are not hard to find. European colonizers believed that black Africans were so close to animals that we could only be capable of "natural" animal impulses (e.g heterosexuality). This made the existence of LGBTQ Africans impossible in their eyes, so they taught us, their colonial subjects, that being LGBTQ was "un-African." And sadly many of us believe it to this day. I hope to visually deconstruct this colonial line of thinking with my work.

Limit(less) by Mikael Owunna

Limit(less) by Mikael Owunna

In Teju Cole's recent New York Times essay on West African studio photography, he talks about the marked difference between photos taken by colonizers and those taken by African photographers. Subjects are held in a "captive gaze" in the former, while in the latter they possess a sense of agency and confidence in who they are. Would you say Limit(less) is continuing in this tradition?

I think that the project as I'm shooting it now is very much in this spirit. As I mentioned previously, though, just being African and shooting other Africans isn't enough. The white gaze and those of colonizers can still inhabit and inhibit our work, and this is something which Toni Morrison has spoken at length about as well.

When I started the research for the project, the white gaze was definitely there but my shift toward depicting visual aesthetics helped me shake its hold on me. In the project I also strive to capture people as they are above all else. Each shoot is completely different and tailored to the individual, and participants have input at every stage of the process, before, during and after the shoot as well. Agency and collaboration are key, and when one participant told me that the photographs showed her as the person she felt she was becoming, I knew I was doing something right.

Limit(less) by Mikael Owunna

Do you hope to take Limit(less) outside the U.S.? What do you envision for the future of this project?

I'll be going to Trinidad to shoot someone for the project in a month, actually, so yes! I'm also open to expanding and exploring further as well. Ultimately, the project is evolving as we speak and each shoot changes it slightly but I see the work fitting well in a gallery space. I also want to explore incorporating video, sound and multimedia as a second stage of the project.

Are you currently working on any other projects? Or is Limitless your sole focus right now?

Besides freelancing, Limit(less) is my sole focus right now. I have also started writing fiction recently, which has been an exciting new creative outlet.

Nigerian-American photographer Mikael Owunna. Photo: Tia Thompson

Can you share with us how your style incorporates/blends elements of your African and LGBTQ identity?

This is a large part of why I am doing this project, because, to be frank, my style does not blend these elements of my identity at all. I am about to turn 25, and despite coming out over a decade ago I feel like I only became really comfortable with my queerness in the last few months through my work on this project. Doing this work has also helped heal many of my personal issues with my Igbo identity. Growing up in America, my only experiences in Nigeria as an adult with family were all largely traumatic. Horrible, hateful homophobic remarks and I was put through a series of exorcisms on two separate visits to Nigeria as well, including once in my own village. These experiences of trauma repelled me away from my Igbo identity for many years, and it is only now that I'm beginning to heal and explore this part of myself again.

Through the project, I am seeking answers myself too if that makes sense. As someone who has struggled with their queerness and African identities for many years, I am drawing inspiration from all of the participants in the ways they bridge the supposed "divide" between the LGBTQ and African identities. My hope is that by the end of the project I will have found what that visual aesthetic means for me as well. A fully actualized queer African living vibrantly in their truththat's my goal! Not quite there yet, so check in with me on this in a year or so as the project progresses.

For more information and photos from Limit(less), visit the official website. Keep up with 'Limit(less) on Facebook and Tumblr.

Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

Photo (c) John Liebenberg


"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.


Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.

The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:

mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.

This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:

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