Limit(less) Project: Netsie

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.

Also please Donate to Support the Project.

Netsie: Queer Ethiopian-Namibian (USA)

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

My name is Netsie, I am a queer Ethiopian Namibian, and my full name translates to “our gift of freedom” in Amharic and Oshiherero. I was born the year my fatherland (Namibia) got independence from apartheid-ruled South Africa so although my first name is Ethiopian, the meaning(Netsanet: freedom) is a reference to Namibia. My ethnicity is black and I use she/her pronouns. 


Q. How would you describe your style?

bell hooks has had a profound effect on my life in a number of ways. When discussing how the black woman watches film, she posits that in order to see ourselves on screen and in stories made for the white, male gaze, we must develop an inverted gaze. That changed the path of my life—I realized that I needed to become a filmmaker, and it also changed the way I saw myself, as a femme woman. From a young age, women are taught that they have no choice in who looks at them and so often, we are held responsible for what other people perceive. We are taught to be presentable, not just for business meetings, but potential friends, mates, and assaulters. At the same time, we are taught never to look threatening, or look back at the people looking at us. We are denied the verb, and forced into the noun. Fuck that. I’m a hard femme with an hourglass silhouette, a goodwill budget, and a firm grasp of anti-capitalist rhetoric. I wear whatever makes me feel comfortable and powerful and safe. I’m too clumsy to own a pair of un-ripped tights. I love wearing bold patterns that clash, things that could be pretty but aren’t, anything to remind people that when they look at me, I am looking right back at them.


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

Traditional Herero attire pulls from our surroundings, the animal that is most fundamental to our survival, and the colonists that sought to systematically erase every last remnant of our existence from the planet. We keep cool in the desert, pay homage to our cows, and declare that not only did you fail at wiping us out, but also, at wearing your own clothes. We took your look, hit it with some much-needed flavor, and made it our own. This cultural knowledge gave me the basis of my understanding of subversive fashion. I spent such a large part of my childhood trying to “pass” as straight that by the time I came out, I had exhausted my ability to care how most people thought of me. I dress accordingly. 


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?

I have always wanted to have an Ethiopian wedding. There are few things that would make me happier. If I end up marrying a cis man, I can have that wedding. If I end up with anyone else, I can’t. It’s that simple. That fact still makes me feel profoundly sad.

Within the gay community, I find that my identity as a queer/pansexual femme, and my perceived ability to “pass” is often maligned and frequently satirized. For years, I felt the need to prove how gay I was. I was a hard top. There were numerous, failed attempts at a full, butch conversion. Eventually, I begun to realize that most generalizations about the gay community were steeped in misogyny and anti-blackness; mainstream gay culture would never be my salvation. But I’m neither the first, nor the last person to write those words.


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

Trivia: Namibia and Ethiopia have vastly different histories when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ community. Gay marriage was legalized in Namibia years before the United States, and in Ethiopia, homosexuality is punishable by life in prison.

My relationship with my immediate family is an interesting one. I came out to my mother when I was 14. That was a major turning point in my life because she was the most important person in my world and she simply didn’t accept what I had to say. That moment, more than any other, taught me about the dualities of love–my mother’s love for me was fierce and unyielding and even still, she rejected me. I don’t regret coming out to her–I have never felt such intense relief in my life. The experience toughened me up. Two years later, when she passed away and my brother outed me to my entire Ethiopian family, I was prepared for the fallout. I am closest to my mother’s family and they love me tremendously, but most of them will never accept me in the way that I would want. Now, we operate on a strict, “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

I unintentionally came out to my Dad when I was 21. I had assumed that my Mom had told him years earlier–she hadn’t. In passing, I mentioned a girl I was seeing. He seemed a little surprised. When I asked him how he felt about it, he said, “if you’re happy, then I am too,” in his still-thick Namibian accent. I was pleasantly surprised. We have a very complicated, often-tense relationship–which made the moment even more profound.


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

Absolutely nothing. 


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

Amazing! Empowering. Slightly nerve-wracking. So much fun. And a total reminder that I prefer being behind the camera than in front of it.


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

I spent most of my formative years being very conflicted about my sexuality. I hated myself for being queer. I prayed that god would take it away from me. The first consistent content about queer women was “The L Word”. I downloaded every episode onto the house computer, renamed each file, and deleted each one as soon as I had watched it. There was nothing really progressive about the show, I just needed to see women loving women and not hating themselves for it. Even if they were nothing like me. In the years since then, lgbtq content has grown in leaps and bounds, but not within mainstream African culture. I love this project, because it is a reminder that WE DO EXIST! And THRIVE! Not just for the people who have survived, but for all the kids trying to make sense of who they are—sometimes the road was harder and rockier, sometimes it was easy, but we made it—and damn if we didn’t look fly the whole way there. 



My experience shooting for #LimitlessAfricans during Toronto Pride


As some of you may know, I’ve been planning to keep the international expansion of the project going for some time now. I took another big step toward achieving my dreams for this project by shooting for #LimitlessAfricans this past weekend in Toronto during #TorontoPride, and it was such an inspirational experience to say the least. While there we built and created community with black LGBTQ folks from across the diaspora, and over the course of two days I shot 5 people for the project from Burundi, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Somalia. And the #queerafricanmagic in the air was just….. incredible. 

 @sizwe__ hosted a toronto pride party for qtpoc and we finished our shoots on a stage in the middle of the party. People jumped in to participate, so we organically created the first group photos for the project. Others offered creative input and we built much of this part of the series together as a collective between shouts of “YAAASSS” and pointed remarks suggesting a particular pose in this way and thay way. It also rewrote so many of my preconceived views of what the creative process can look like. We were all just KICKING it, drinking, sunbathing, melanin gleaming the works and creating art in the moment FOR US BY US. And running into other LGBTQ Africans there who already knew and loved #limitlessafricans just like… shocked and amazed me! The project is reaching people globally which is jaw dropping and so heartwarming to see. 

There’s nothing that I can say that can truly capture that feeling of being surrounded by members of your community creating work with and for your community. Magic swirling around us and materializing in our work. 

There are so many ways in which the world tells us that we are not enough. That we as black LGBTQ people and LGBTQ africans in particular cannot and should not exist. But still we rise. We are unstoppable. And I’m so happy and proud to be a queer Nigerian person and to be part of such an amazing LGBTQ African community. 

The pics from this weekend won’t be released for a few weeks. But I hope that you all enjoy some of the brief previews on the limitless blog (www.limitlessafricans.tumblr.com) in the meantime! And a HUGE thanks and big hugs to my loves Kim, Sizwe, Tyler, TK and Toshiro ++ everyone who jumped into the shoots and was there sharing space as we created together this weekend. Theres so much in the works and coming down the pipeline for the project and I’m so excited to share it over the next few months !! 

On to Sweden in just a few more weeks! 

P.S. Check out all of the stories from the project to date here: www.limitlessafricans.com/stories 


Limit(less) Project: Eniola

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.

Also please Donate to Support the Project.

Eniola: Queer Nigerian (USA)

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

Eniola, Nigerian raised in US, she/her, Queer: Over the course of my life my expression of sexuality has changed and probably will change more, but all of my lived experiences and the frame in which I perceive sexuality will always be queer. Fuck labels.

Q. How would you describe your style?

I feel the most beautiful in full traditional wear, with gele tied by older African women whom I love and respect. I consider it original beauty; Black beauty dates way back to when beauty became an attribute. Needless to say I love bright colors, so I wear them year-round.


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

I think by nature of being comfortable in my own skin and dressing in ways that feel natural to me, my African and queer identity. I love wearing traditional clothes or accessories with bright African fabric.  


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?

I haven’t been home since I was 5 years old. Shortly after coming out to my mother, we had a conversation. She was visiting Nigeria and wanted me to come home with her to visit her church. She hoped that with strong deliverance, I would no longer be queer. She even used the laws and consequences around suspected homosexuality in Nigeria, as justification that she was right to try to rid of my queerness. It was a literal ultimatum.

It hurts to think about not feeling safe in returning home, especially with my mother. My relationship with my mother has definitely hurt my relationship with home. But now that I’m a bit more independent, I hope to visit home with my father, to rebuild the relationship with the home I haven’t know in so long.


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

My relationship with my family has always been a bit complicated. I was raised in a religious household, Mormon to be specific, and before I could love myself unconditionally, I had to settle my qualms with what I’ve always been taught about my relationship with God. Being an active member in the Mormon church I inherently internalized so much self-hatred around being Black, queer, a womxn, and outspoken but leaving wasn’t easy. The only interactions I’d had with God were through the context of the Mormon religion and I knew I wasn’t ready to let go of my relationship with God altogether. Eventually I started attending a Baptist church with my aunt, and was so happy to interact with God in a space that supported more of my identities.

I’m in a good place on my journey of self-love and I recently opened up to my family about my queerness after having an intense conversation with my mother about her expectations of me. These included submitting to a man and having children like “the Bible says,” all while being a doctor. She promised that only then would I be happy. She begged to take me to Nigeria to deliver me from what she saw as “demons destroying my destiny.” I knew my mom would be upset but her extended reaction was a stark contrast to the comfort with sharing my queerness with everyone else in my life for years. My parents were hurt initially but things have calmed down since we don’t talk about it much. I think their hope is that if they ignore my queerness, it will go away.

In most aspects of my life, I longed for “acceptance” from my family and have recently decided to live for me. As much as I love and appreciate them, I can’t go to medical school for them or ignore my own happiness to make them more comfortable. My parents will probably never be happy to see me in a loving relationship or building my own little family, but that will have to be okay with me. I do have family members who continuously extend unconditional love and for that, I am so grateful.


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

Do more research. I’ve heard arguments that queerness is a product of colonization. In reality, hatred of queerness is a product of colonization and to say LGBTQ identities don’t date back to the beginning of humanity as we know it, is simply false. Hearing this narrative as a child, made me fundamentally believe that I was the only one. It was so lonely and scary feeling like I was going against God, my family, my country, and my people. I would tell anyone and everyone to open their minds to all of the different identities that are encompassed within “African.”


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

I was so nervous to shoot. I looked at past shoots to see what was okay or how I should be. But as soon as I started trying on outfits, I felt comfortable in my skin and was really excited. The shoot, more than anything, was really fun. I got into listening to the background music and let my body do what it wanted. Most of the time I wanted to laugh but couldn’t. Overall, it was an amazing experience that allowed me to be in so many of my identities at once, and that I appreciate. 


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

The first time I met another queer African person was indescribable, and reaffirmed my identities in ways that nothing else could have. I hope that Limit(less) reaches people who benefit from this affirmation. Too many of us think we’re the only one.


Q. Where are you comfortable with people reaching you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/eniola.abioye.1

https://twitter.com/sunkissed_504

https://www.instagram.com/sunkissed_504/