In 2005, when Mikael Chukwuma Owunna was 15 years old, he came out as gay on MySpace.
At the time, many of his Nigerian family members deemed his sexual orientation "un-African." Owunna is a Nigerian-Swedish engineer, photographer and Fulbright Scholar born and raised in Pittsburgh, where he's still based today. But when he went home to Nigeria for the holidays as a teenager, a priestess performed several forced exorcisms to "wash the 'gay devil' out," he recounts now in the preface for his new book, Limitless Africans.
For years, he says, he felt as if his gay and African identities were at odds with each other. And there were existing laws to enforce that idea. Same-sex conduct is currently illegal in more than 30 African countries and punishable by death in four. Just last week, police in Uganda arrested a group of 16 LGBTQ activists on suspicion of homosexuality. But Owunna points out that these laws aren't rooted in African traditions — they can actually be traced back to British colonial rule.
That's why he knew there had to be more to the experiences of LGBTQ people in Africa and the African diaspora besides invisibility or suffering. He began researching different sexual orientations that existed in precolonial Africa, and then set out to document what queerness looks like for African people today.
Starting in 2013, he spent six years traveling across Europe, North America and the Caribbean, photographing LGBTQ African immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. The result, Limitless Africans, is a narrative celebration of how young queer people from myriad African countries define themselves and their cultures.
"Through each portrait, I got a little bit of an answer on how each individual views their LGBTQ and African identities together, and through that I cumulatively found my own answer for myself on how I can be both of these identities at the same time," Owunna says.
Across the individual experiences explored in Limitless Africans, similar themes surface. In the text alongside their photographs, many of Owunna's subjects discuss feeling rejected by their African culture because of their gender or sexual identity. But in Western countries, they recount feeling excluded from mainstream, predominantly white queer spaces.
"Even when I was growing up, I didn't know any other LGBTQ Africans until I was 18 years old," Owunna says. "And so there is that kind of recurring isolation which can also lead to depression and anxiety because if you feel anxious about expressing yourself within any context, you can't live as your full self."
For many of the people Owunna interviewed, the solution has largely been to create spaces of community with other black queer folks who understand and uplift one another. Many told him they simply hadn't met or been exposed to other people who fit both identities when they were growing up.
History was also a big factor in a lot of the subjects' healing. Several people allude to their own research on indigenous African sexualities and the British empire's role in enforcing heteronormativity in African society. The historical theme and idea that queerness is not new to the continent is present in Owunna's creative decisions, too.
There are symbols from the ancient Nigerian writing system, Nsibidi, throughout the book, such as one translated to two women sleeping and embracing one another. Owunna also organized the photographs into four chapters in accordance with the four Igbo calendar days, depending on which day they were taken.
"Through how the book is formatted, I was trying to help debunk this idea that it's 'un-African' to be LGBTQ by putting LGBTQ Africans within an African cosmological and spiritual framework through the days of the week," he explains.
Limitless Africans' book launch was held at the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco in early October. During the event, Owunna says, a Nigerian audience member stood up in tears to thank him for what they described as his "historic and life-changing" work.
He says the long road it took to create the book allowed him to heal from his own trauma while also acknowledging that the narratives surrounding blackness and queerness don't have to only focus on negativity. He credits Terna, one of the participants of the project, with helping shift his perspective.
"I realized that the power of the camera and the image was that we can imagine new worlds and realities where all of us, where people from all types of identities, can be free," he says. "Thinking about what image would have been important for me when I was 15 — and when I was going through all that isolation that I was feeling — I knew that it would be a positive, uplifting image that could give me a space to believe in myself and believe that I deserved to be here, that these identities could co-exist in my body and have a positive outcome long-term."