Mikael Owunna is a prolific photographer and storyteller whose impactful work forces audiences to pay attention. An American-born artist who identifies as an immigrant, Owunna calls upon his experiences of being raised in an American- Igbo Nigerian-Swedish household and as a member of the LGBTQ community to capture unique narratives and stunning visuals. His current photography project, Limit(less) Africans, focuses on LGBTQ African immigrants and how they explore their own identities.
Mikael Chukwuma Owunna has a complicated relationship with identity. As a queer black man, he has struggled to reconcile his sexual orientation with his Nigerian identity. In the artist’s own words, “I think being queer and an immigrant — especially an African immigrant — made me so much more conscious around what identity looks like, not only as a space for power and identification, but also can be used to weaponize and demonize people within the [queer] community.”
This is a space he has explored throughout his international travels and cross-cultural experiences. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he has lived primarily in the United States, with occasional visits to Nigeria, where his father currently resides. Growing up, he noticed that while he was eating pounded yam and egusi soup (native to Nigeria), other kids were eating steak and potatoes. Recognizing cultural differences as a child fueled his inquisitive nature and his later desire to learn more about cultural identity.
As an adult, he broadened this childhood curiosity by considering ways that an artist can create positive narratives to empower marginalized individuals and communities. His first experience using art for empowerment was following his graduation from Duke University when he moved to Taiwan as a Fulbright scholar to work with first and second grade indigenous, aboriginal students. He co-created a curriculum titled I am Atayal that was designed to help these children use photography as a way to express their cultural identity.
This experience challenged him to confront his own identity as a black person in a foreign space. Owunna admits that he was vastly unprepared for the level and depths of anti-blackness he experienced in Asia. “People literally did not see me as a human being,” he recalled of his conflicted experience in Taiwan. “I would be in an elevator and people would run out – literally running and looking behind them to get away from me. And I am thinking ‘Wow… this sucks.’”