Mikael Owunna

Mikael Owunna is a queer Nigerian-Swedish American photographer and engineer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Exploring the intersections of visual media with engineering, optics, Blackness, and African cosmologies, his work seeks to elucidate an emancipatory vision of possibility that pushes African people beyond all boundaries, restrictions, and frontiers.

Owunna’s work has been exhibited across Asia, Europe, and North America and been collected by institutions such as the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Equal Justice Initiative, Duke University, and National Taiwan Museum. His work has also been featured in media ranging from the New York Times to CNN, NPR, VICE, and The Guardian. He has lectured at venues including Harvard Law School, World Press Photo (Netherlands), Tate Modern (UK), and TEDx. Owunna’s first published monograph 'Limitless Africans' was released in 2019 by FotoEvidence and was awarded the FotoEvidence Book Award with World Press Photo.

Infinite Essence

Contemporary Western visual culture is awash in images of Black death: historic lynching photographs, videos of Black people (Michael Brown, Jr., George Floyd, and many more) being killed by police, Black bodies washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean, Africans starving and dying in Pulitzer-Prize winning photography. The trope of the Black body as a site of death is pervasive and omnipresent.

Responding to images of police killings of Black people, since 2016 I have worked to articulate an alternative vision of the Black body as the incarnation of the eternal cosmos. Using my engineering background, I built a camera flash that only transmits ultraviolet light, and in each photoshoot I begin by hand painting my sitters’ nude bodies with fluorescent paints that glow under ultraviolet light. I click down on the shutter in total darkness, and for a fraction of a second their Black bodies illuminate as the universe, transfiguring the Black body into transcendent, ethereal vessels.

Titled 'Infinite Essence,' this series explores a transfigured vision of the Black body in relationship with West African spiritual and cosmological systems, particularly Igbo and Dogon. Each image references myths and divine principles from both systems, connecting Black bodies of the present across space and time to our ancestral conceptions of the universe.

To view more of Mikael Owunna’s work please visit their website.