June 4th, 2020
Mikael Owunna’s Photographs Show the Essence of Black Healing
In his glittering portraits, the artist is building an alternate world.
By Amber Hickey and Anney Traymany
“What is the impact,” the photographer Mikael Owunna asks, “when you see somebody who looks like you being killed all of the time?” Owunna, an American photographer of Nigerian Swedish descent who originally studied engineering, makes work about queerness and the Black body, and describes his practice as a direct response to a dominant visual culture pervaded by images of the Black body as a site of death. His series Infinite Essence (2016–ongoing) simultaneously constructs an alternative visual narrative in our present, while gesturing toward the possibility of another world. In order to create these otherworldly images, Owunna uses fluorescent paints to hand paint the bodies of his subjects; the photographs are taken in darkness, punctuated by flashes of ultraviolet light.
We recently spoke to Owunna about the gravity of this series, and how it might be mobilized as a speculative tool of creative resistance. Although most of this conversation was conducted prior to the murder of George Floyd, the video that circulated of Floyd’s death, repeatedly reposted, adds new weight to the question that drives Owunna’s photography: what is that space we can imagine beyond the limits of white supremacy, racism, and violence?
Amber Hickey: How have you been holding up this past week?
Mikael Owunna: “How are you?” is the hardest question I’m asked these days. There is no way to quantify or express the level of horror, tragedy, and distress. America’s delight at the spectacle of the public lynching; collapsing public-health infrastructure that already did not serve Black communities; unemployment is skyrocketing; and no comment on how Black unemployment consistently reaches two times the national rate. I don’t know what to say, other than Black Liberation Now.
Anney Traymany: You address a variety of social justice issues, particularly those that directly affect Black communities. Can you talk us through some of your main artistic concerns, what led you to begin your Infinite Essence series, and how this project relates to your other work?
Owunna: With Infinite Essence, I was really struck between 2014 and 2016 by the plethora of images and videos that were being diffused in the media, of Black people being shot and killed by police officers. At first, it was this emotional response of seeing this injustice and being really rallied into action. What I began to notice after several years of this was that there was just this continuous repetition of this image of the Black body being shot and killed, and just falling to the ground. I started thinking about, what is the impact that has when you see somebody who looks like you being killed all of the time? I don’t see this type of imagery, particularly with white people, with white bodies, and so I was asking myself as a photographer and as an engineer, how can I reimagine the Black body in a different way? How can I reimagine the Black body as a space of magic and light? That is the crux of the project. I am constantly thinking about how I can imagine and reimagine universes where people from marginalized backgrounds—particularly Black and LGBTQ people—can be full and complete individuals. It’s the same artistic impulse to reimagine and create worlds—ideal world-building—where marginalized people are full and complete individuals.
Hickey: Infinite Essence also creatively resists the way Black bodies are often represented in the news, and it points subtly toward the way images of Black folks under duress are sometimes seen as more “valuable” to corporate news outlets and therefore more valuable for journalists and editors, which is of course, a serious problem. But then again, journalists and editors are vulnerable to this economy of images. Do you think they have a role in resisting it?
Owunna: I absolutely do think there’s a role, and there’s an intentionality that’s played by the industry. I think about when Columbine happened, I never saw an image of a dead white teenager. With Sandy Hook, I never saw an image of one of those dead children. The media is not showing us those images. Whereas you have a relationship with Black and Brown bodies, there’s no type of respect that’s given to that body, and as mentioned, it’s open harvest for everybody.
When I was thinking about these police shooting videos that were being shared so widely, I also thought about the history of lynching photos—how photographers would take pictures of victims of lynching, and they would be sold as mementos. I was thinking about the world in which image-makers have been agents of white supremacy and are propagating it. I do think there is a responsibility, and it’s an interesting dynamic in terms of who actually has the agency in those situations. We can talk about how Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, chose to display pictures of his body after he was murdered in 1955, and how that had a very different impact, because that was an intentional choice. When Michael Brown was shot and killed, and the image of his body was shared all over the media, that was not with the consent of his family as an intentional choice. And so, I do think there is completely a responsibility, a big responsibility, because images have so much power. Particularly when dealing with marginalized groups who have historically little or poor representation. If you’re filling up that vacuum with destructive images of those communities, that does have an impact.
Traymany: Who is this series for?
Owunna: My projects are for myself, first and foremost. I do projects over the course of years. I did Limitless Africans (2019) over the course of six and a half years. I’ve been working on Infinite Essence for three years. For me, there needs to be an internal space of healing that I’m finding in order for it to be a big motivating factor. I am trying to find ways of renegotiating my relationship with my own body as a Black, queer person. I am trying to think about how I was being so deleteriously impacted by seeing these images, and so I wanted to ask, What does an expansive, beautiful representation of the Black body that I want to see, and that would heal me, look like? What could I create around that? Healing is so important for me. And that’s why the images look the way they do, because I’m trying to heal things that I felt were broken within me, and I’m trying to find that universe where we are all full and complete individuals.
Hickey: In your statement about the series, you ask, “What if the only images you saw of people who looked like you were dead and dying bodies? How would that affect the way you move through the world, how would that enter (and hamper) your body?” How has Infinite Essence affected the bodies of your subjects, as well as those who view the finished work?
Owunna: When the work was shared in an NPR article last year, I got flooded with comments, particularly from other Black people. One that stuck with me was from a sixty-year-old Black woman named Annette. She emailed me and said that she’s a curvy Black woman, and she said that every single day of her life, she has hated her body. Every single day, for sixty years. And when she saw the Infinite Essence series—there is a piece with a curvy, Black woman adorned with stars—she said for the first time, she had a moment where she felt at ease with who she is. When I thought about Annette’s comment, about how she felt that sense of ease for the first time in her life seeing the image, I also thought about how works of art, even hundreds of years old, can affect the ways in which people move through the world. It informed the way I thought about the power of the image to affect community.
Hickey: Why do you choose photography as your medium of intervention?
Owunna: I stumbled into photography. I was studying engineering, and I was really struggling with being a queer, Nigerian immigrant. I was trying to find a creative outlet for myself, and one of my friends jokingly said, before we went to study at Oxford for the summer, “We should take pictures while we’re there!” And I was like, sure. I got a camera, and my uncle, who was an amateur photographer, gave me a lot of tools to think about photography and composition. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was because I was in such a state of incredible depression and anxiety, I literally didn’t believe or didn’t know how to believe that someone could be queer and African and inhabit the same body. I wasn’t going to therapy, I was eighteen, I was a mess. The camera became this huge creative outlet for me at a time when I had no voice. Maybe because I wasn’t that good at drawing or painting, I suddenly had this tool that could allow me to create images of the world around me, but focus on things that could be a bit more emancipatory than what my day-to-day life was like. And so, I came into it from that perspective of wanting to escape from where I was in my life at the time.
Hickey: The historical bias of photographic film is well known—specifically, the way film was originally developed to best capture lighter skin tones, and the problems that has long presented. It seems like your work is responding to that long legacy of misrepresentation of the Black body in photography, through moving beyond documentary photography, toward something more speculative and imaginative.
Owunna: I see myself as standing on the shoulders of the long tradition of Black photographers, playing with and reimagining our uses of this medium to fit our communities. With Infinite Essence, people often don’t think the pieces are photographs. People will be like, “Oh, wow, that’s great digital art!” My mom and aunt will say, “Oh, Chu Chu, your painting!” I think there’s a shift when people understand that the work is a photograph. In fact, there’s an interesting dynamic, because suddenly the way in which they respond to work and respond to the idea that this is a Black person, a Black body, when they understand that it’s a photograph, is totally different than when they think it’s a painting or a graphic. So, I think there is this dynamic that’s happening there when people respond to the work as a photograph, that can then be used as photographic evidence of “there is something different out there.” It’s right within our grasp, but it’s beyond our comprehension, because the photograph captures “reality.” It’s this new way of seeing reality that I think, because it’s understood as a photograph, can shift things.
Traymany: What is the significance of shooting in the dark? How does that help viewers, or even yourself, challenge the frame, so to speak?
Owunna: There’s a lot of difficulty with shooting in the dark, so one of the things that I’ve started doing is I focus with the light on, then I turn the lights off, and then I photograph. I press down the shutter, and the ultraviolet light will shoot out and illuminate the body for a fraction of a second, and then that’s timed to the camera sensor, which then picks up the fluorescence. I put my camera a little bit down during the shoot so I can look over. It’ll be totally dark, and this glowing figure will emerge from the darkness, and then disappear. I’m really fascinated by the way in which I think about spirit and the way I play with this idea of moving between dimensions. Because we think about the visible spectrum as one sliver of the wavelengths of light that exist. That’s all we can see, as human beings, all we will ever see. I think about how other species can see other wavelengths of light. What if we could see something different? I’m playing with the idea of what is visible and invisible to the current human experience, and ideas of what the body can represent.
Traymany: Your work reminds me a lot of Octavia Butler’s and adrienne maree brown’s in terms of how you “write” or, in this case, photograph yourself into the narrative. brown helped to coin the term “visionary fiction” to define genres of writing that offer us alternative worlds. Do you feel like your work is a piece of visionary fiction? Did you have Butler or brown as inspirations in creating this project?
Owunna: Actually, I was reading Butler when I was testing out different concepts. I read Kindred (1979), and I read Imago (1989), which was really good. I read some books from the Patternist series. I read four of her books and for me, the practice that I had when reading her work was in reading the characters as being Black characters. I mean intentionally, when I was reading her work, I was imagining this world, because I visualize everything when I am reading, and I imagined this world and these different figures as being Black people. Whereas I’m used to imagining science fiction figures being white people.
When I was conceptualizing the project, I was specifically referencing a quote by novelist Chinua Achebe, who was talking about the idea of the spirit in the Igbo cosmological system. One of the ideas is that we all have an internal spirit or spiritual guide called chi, and that each of our chi is one ray of the infinite essence of the sun. That’s where the title “Infinite Essence” comes from. This idea that all of our spirits are connected to something that’s far greater and deeper than what meets the eye. With Infinite Essence, I am building a universe that looks different. I am building a world where Black people are magical figures. So it’s not about it being a future, these are present Black bodies that look like this, who then add another element to the world-building that is special to the photographic medium.
Our bodies are made from stardust. All of the iron that is used to bind oxygen in our red blood cells, in hemoglobin, comes from the explosion of supernovas. Gold is formed when two neutron stars in a binary formation spin into each other and explode. That’s why gold is rare, because this element formed from a less frequent collision of stars. I think about this idea of death and rebirth. Death and rebirth, again and again. I think about spaces of healing and these spaces of rebirth, and how we can create something new. That’s what I try to do with my work, is to think about healing and rebirth in the face of what we experience on a day-to-day basis in terms of violence. What is that world that I want to be in, that I want to imagine, that is so much bigger and so much more expansive than the limits we’ve created through hierarchy, white supremacy, capitalism? If we understood that this is what our bodies are made of, how might that change our relationships? Particularly if you come from a marginalized background, what’s possible for you? That’s what makes me excited, to think about sharing my work, and the impact I could have, just leaving it open to breathe.
Amber Hickey is a faculty fellow in American studies at Colby College. Anney Traymany is a student of critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The authors gratefully acknowledge Stella Gonzalez, who transcribed this interview.
Click here to donate to Black Liberation Organizations.