Limit(less) Project: Netsie

Limit(less) is a documentary photography project by Mikael Owunna exploring the visual aesthetics of LGBTQ African immigrants. 

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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. 

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