Limit(less) Project: Aru

Limit(less) is a documentary photography project by Mikael Owunna exploring the visual aesthetics of LGBTQ African immigrants to debunk the myth that it is “un-African” to be LGBTQ.

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Aru: Queer Congolese (Shot in Brussels, Belgium)

“…Have you ever wondered why black poetry is so powerful..

We recite our existence. We are renewed history. Similar rhythm but different words. The history you read about, but not those alternative facts. The history that documents the intricate details of the scars left from backlash of our oppression. The scars that have turned into smiles just to hide the pain that only our eyes can reveal if you look deep enough.. “oh sweet child” she says to me. Looking into her eyes I know she meant herself. Those kind of eyes. To see herself in me and know that history rhymes a song too familiar. A song too painful. A song too real. A song that when I hear I smile too, because I rejoice that someone else feels the same pain I feel. How sad is that? To be happy that someone else shares the pain the way you do. To find happiness in knowing you are not alone. When you use your dead body as proof of your trauma and still they want the death certificate to prove you’re even dead. Your trauma that has left scars on you every time you recite your words in tongue. A tongue so sharp you end up sacrificing your brother to use his blood to write your story. A Story you forgot. A story full of myths. When your chapters are filled with myths more than your actual history do you really know yourself? Do you really understand the greatness that is buried beneath those finger tips smothered in dried up ink?…”

- Aru

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

My name is Aurélie , But I also go by Aru. I am Congolese, Bundundu.

I prefer to go by the pronouns of they/them. Though, dialogue around gender and identity have been tiring to navigate.

I am comfortable with identifying as queer/ or lesbian.

Q. How would you describe your style?

I would not say I have a specific style. My style really depends on how I feel on the day. I feel empowered on a day I dress according to the emotions I’m having.

If I’m feeling more masculine expressive I throw on a shirt and trousers/jeans with my brogues. Or a muscle top and jeans. If I’m feeling slightly feminine I’ll wear earrings and lipstick, though even with lipstick I feel more masculine expressive. Though masculinity and femininity are social constructs, a characteristic we express. Majority of the time i wear lipstick to add colour to my outfit, since I’m not really into bright colours. My style is influenced around my comfort of an environment I know I’m going to be in. Having to deal with anxiety throughout the day is not fun, so I make sure I’m dressed as comfortably as possible to have one less thing to be self-conscious about.

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

When I think of my identity as an African I mainly think of my skin colour, and the people I interact with that add to my self-growth and character. When I dress I don’t dress to get identified, its usually my speaking that does it for me, and it’s usually within the first encounter of speaking to me people will realise I’m a pro black, queer pan Africanist. When I think of my identity as a queer lesbian I suppose my style being more masculine expressive conflicts with how perceived traditional African women are “supposed” to dress like. Colourful dresses. The main people bothered with my style are the elder generation when I’m parading in baggy jeans and have my tattoos and piercings on show.

Though, If I were to pin down a clothing style that blends in elements of my African identity I’d have to say when I wear my head wrap it brings an element of pride. Traditional clothing have images with patterns that tell stories, and these head wraps remind me of my father and how he would always want us (my siblings and I) to wear our traditional head wraps and attire. So when I wear my head wrap to an event it is because on that day I really feel that element of pride and beauty. I feel proud every day but we all have those days where memories or events really trigger a deep emotional tie to your roots, especially as an African Diaspora we long to find some relation or connection to our culture and historical past, whilst ensuring we create our own identity. All whilst respectfully trying to refute traditional African mindsets in my case in regards to LGBTQ being unafrican.

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 grew up in Zimbabwe and Botswana, the moment I realised I like women (age 14) I did not have the vocabulary to even express what it is I felt, nor understand the complexities of sexuality and identity. I had no problem at the time feeling proud of being African. So I wouldn’t say I was being pushed I away. I think it was more of a lack of understanding which didn’t allow me to intersect the two identities. I felt more pushed away or challenged about my African identity when I moved to the UK and Belgium. Having to hide who I am, or act a certain way to keep the peace around relatives within the household for fear of causing arguments were the times I really felt pushed from my identity. Being told I can’t be accepted for “what I am” is when you make that choice for you to validate yourself. Realising I had the power in myself to make myself happy is how I started overcoming these hurdles. It starts with the mindset really. Then surrounding myself or talking to people that understood these complexities further helped my self-growth and self-love.

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

If you asked me this question years ago I’d still be fumbling for words. But right now I can genuinely smile and say I’m happy with how things are. Of course things could be better but I’m actually happy. Being accepted looks like me being given the same treatment in life that my older sibling and relatives expect of me as they do for my younger siblings. Without them feeling uneasy or rewording their sentences to avoid certain words or phrases. Acceptance simply is me living my life without needing to justify it, or prove myself worthy.

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

There are various resources one can read or watch in order to understand history in Africa better. Non-white washed sources. Though it has gotten to a point where having such dialogues have become tiring and never ending, but more emotionally draining on my end. People fear what they do not understand. And when someone doesn’t understand what it is to truly be themselves, and love who they are then I’m really not surprised that there is such resistance to having an open mind and understanding their history. To put Africans in a box of heteronormative western structures is to really deny yourself of your true history. We were never meant to be enslaved physically and mentally. Imagine how different our countries and mind-set would be if we weren’t so deeply rooted in western ideology.

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

It was nerve wrecking in the beginning, but towards the end of the shoot I felt more at ease. It was interesting feeling myself being watched but allowing myself to be open, vulnerable yet to some extent towards the end in control. Many people find it hard to believe but I am very introverted and it showed in the pictures. I really enjoyed myself.

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

For shoots like Limit(less) to feel and be normalised. It felt so refreshing seeing all the beautiful interviews on the website, but it also felt motivating and validating. The importance of creative visibility has such an effect on our communities. I hope that projects such as Limit(less) open doors for LGBTQ people around the globe and resonate with them one way or the other.

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