Limit(less) Project: Terna

Limit(less) is a documentary photography project by Mikael Owunna exploring the visual aesthetics of LGBTQ African immigrants. For more on the project, follow us on TumblrInstagramFacebook and Flickr

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Terna: Bisexual Nigerian-Liberian American

Q. What’s your name, country of origin, ethnicity, preferred gender pronoun, and how do you identify in terms of your LGBTQ identity?

My name is Terna.  I am a Nigerian-Liberian American, and I’m black.  I identify as black.  Preferred gender pronouns are she, her, and hers.  I identify as bisexual.  I use queer most of the time.  I use queer most of the time, but I think it is important to say bisexual.

Q. How would you describe your style?

How would I describe my style?  It’s an interesting question.  I think I have kind of a few dimensions to my style, and lately, there’s sort of the style that’s expressed here when I’m in America, and there’s the style that is expressed when I’m in Nigeria, and they’re a little bit different, although closer together now than they’ve ever been.  

What makes me feel confident and like I am representing myself and all that I seek to embody, that style is basically kind of what I call like a neo-Muslim style, I guess.  So, for me, that means that I always have some sort of head covering, usually a hat of some kind, and I have a tunic sort of top, or at least long sleeves, and then some, you know, either leggings or whatever trousers underneath, and that’s my basic style.  I have a couple of rings that I always wear that are significant to me.  I always have my prayer beads on, and I have short hair and glasses, so I think people are not quite sure how to read me, but for me, my style is in keeping with my spiritual values in terms of a certain kind of modesty in my clothing and appearance.  The other way I sometimes look is I wear button down shirts and trousers and sweaters in the cooler months, but like a button down with trousers but always with the hat.  Earrings, I almost always have earrings of some kind on when I go out in public. 

It’s a long answer, but I don’t know that my style fits neatly into a catch-phrase.  Something else that’s important to me, too, is that as much as is possible, especially if I’m going to an event or something like that, I wear some sort of African clothing. You’ll never find me in a cocktail dress or anything like that. Strictly African if I’m going somewhere for, like to an event like that, like a graduation or if I’m performing somewhere, or to any of those types of things.  I have some element from my culture, so I have Tiv cloth, which is called Angue, that’s my tribe in Nigeria.  I have a scarf that my mom brought me from Kenya, or I have something, some visual element that clearly marks me as not, yeah, that brings some of that into the space.

Q. How do you think your style incorporates/blends elements of your African and LGBTQ identity?

Yeah, I think it’s that intentionality about having a kind of look, and this has really evolved over the last probably three years or so, but intentionally having a look that is not fashionable hipster.  I don’t look, I don’t really represent the queer aesthetic in terms of the standard - I don’t look like a stud, I don’t look like a dapper queer.  I look like something else, and that something else is a nod to where I come from.  It’s me standing in my power, but it’s also distinctly you, like I have my little fedoras and those types of things, which I think do tip over into some of the queer aesthetics particularly, I would say, the queer aesthetics of people of color.  

That’s important to me as well, yeah, but so much of it also about a certain attitude.  You know, and I think I have that.  I remember a friend of mine once said, “You know, if I don’t know you, I would still know you were queer.”  And I was like, at this time, I think I could have easily passed, I had long hair, and she said, “It’s something about your confidence.”  And that really stayed with me.  So, whatever that thing is, I definitely have that.

Q. Was there ever a time where you felt pushed away from your African or LGBTQ identities? If so, how did you overcome that personally?

That’s an ongoing struggle, I’ll say.  I think having both, my African identities and my identity as a queer person.  Those things have definitely created a sense of fragmentation in my life.  They have affected my family relationships in the sense that I’m not as close to certain family members as I would like to be because I feel like my queer identity would get in the way of having the closeness that is the way that closeness goes down with my African family members, and that’s been really, really difficult.  

In some ways, I think that that’s been the central tension or conflict of my life.  So, it’s something that I live with.  I’m not sure that I overcome it.  I think I learn to live with it differently at different moments in my life.  I think I’m more, I think there are different moments where I’m more - I was going to use the word “tortured” by it.  I think there are moments where it causes me a great deal of distress and moments where it’s more bearable.  I think those are really the parameters that it lives in, the torturous in a sense or the bearable.

Q. How is your relationship with your family, and what does being “accepted” by your family look like for you?

It makes me feel sad that I have to be accepted by anyone. That feeling of being outside is not a feeling that I enjoy.  It’s not a feeling that I take pride in.  It’s not something that I feel good about.  It makes me very sad, actually.  My mom has been, we’ve gone through our ups and downs.  Actually, let me say, I don’t know if we’ve had a lot of ups.  I think we’ve had, “ok, I think we’re ok” and we’ve definitely had some downs in her journey in dealing with it, and as recently as least year, she alluded to the fact that it’s not easy for her to deal with my queerness.  I have a few cousins that I’ve sort of explicitly told, but otherwise it’s not something that I talk about with my family.  

I would bring just one or two ladies that I was involved with around to a family thing, and you know, my family is really loving, they’re great, wonderful people, kind people, loving people, and they’ve just rolled with it.  It’s like, “oh, how’s your friend?”  You know, that kind of thing.  I think it’s important to challenge this narrative about coming out and making that a big thing.  I don’t feel the need to do that, per se.  What I care about is that I’m able to still show up and be with my family, and I worry about that.  I do worry about that.  Mostly, it’s been good on the Liberian side.  On the Nigerian side, you know, I wouldn’t even.  Nah.  Nah.  I got a few siblings that are cool, but that’s about it.  You know, I’m not trying to do that there. 

Complicated.  What it would look like is a feeling of safety.  A feeling of belonging, of not being different and not being outside of the stream of my family.  That’s a longing, a deep desire that I have.  That’s what “acceptance” would mean for me.

Q. What would you have to say to people who say that being LGBTQ is “un-African”?

Well, the reality of the matter is that there have been and there will continue to be queer Africans for days, so, it’s not anything new.  It’s not anything new in human existence, and to say that it’s un-African, is to really, well, I can understand and have compassion for this narrative as a way of resisting colonialism and really seeking to make some distinction between what colonialism did to our countries, to the places where we are from and the sense of “this is who we are.”  I can definitely get that.  I think this is the wrong thing to hang your hat on because it’s just not true, and it’s also the influence of Christianity, which is a form of colonization to me.  

That is one of the main residues of colonization, and so, I think it’s really important, for a lot of reasons, that we question whose narratives we are responding and reacting to, and really imagine in a new way, what is African?  That term even in and of itself I think I struggle with because there are such differences.  Even in Nigeria alone, how many tribes do we have?  So many, and each of them are distinct.  My tribe is definitely, we are not Yoruba.  We’re not.  You know.  So, this idea that we’re all African - I get, and I accept on some level, what are the general themes in our values - that conversation, but at the same time, I think we really need to reimagine our nationalism.  

What is Nigerian?  What is Liberian?  What is Kenyan?  What is Ugandan?  What is Somalian?  All of these things in a way that is really about self-definition as opposed to reacting against something, and so my response to folks who say that being queer is un-African, I would invite them, I really invite them to look at, what is the narrative that you’re holding about colonization and what it means to own who you are and where you come from and your heritage without pushing those who belong to that heritage, too, without pushing any of us out of that.

Q. How was participating in the Limit(less) shoot?

Participating in the Limitless shoot was great.  It was complicated.  It was good.  I’m so glad that I did, and Mikael and I, we’ve been talking about this shoot for awhile, or this whole project for awhile, I guess it’s been a year and a half, and so awesome to say “yay!” We’ve said we were going to do this thing together, and we’ve done it.  That’s amazing.  I’m so thankful for the collaboration.  It was tiring!  I had no idea taking some photos would be tiring like that.  I learned, I also learned, but overall, it was a good experience.

Q. What are you most excited about for Limit(less)?

I’m most excited that this project is increasing the visibility of LGBTQ Africans.  My hope is that there’s some young person, or old, whoever, that there are people out there who have been feeling fragmented, who have been feeling like they have to somehow break themselves in order to fit, to still belong to our cultures.  This, to me, my hope is that they will see some of the images, to read some of the stories and thoughts and things, and  feel like - recognize themselves in it and that it will spark some kind of mending, inner mending for them to know that they are ok and that they can be who they are, that there’s nothing wrong with them, and they get to claim all aspects of who they are.  That would be my great hope for the project and why, a large part of why I wanted to participate.