Limit(less) Project: Nolizwe

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

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Nolizwe: Queer South African 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 Nolizwe and it means “the nation” in Xhosa.

I recently started to use my full name. Before I went by Lizwe and in some cases Liz. I was ashamed of my name growing up and tired of everyone mispronouncing it, so I figured it would be easier to shorten it and not deal with any of the nonsense. As I continue to learn ways to love myself, I’ve fallen in love with it and value its importance within my ancestral and personal journey. 

I am a Queer South African American and use they/she pronouns.

Q. How would you describe your style?

I couldn’t tell you that I had a style. Defining this has always been a bit of a struggle as all of the images I saw growing up were either of white or skinny people. As a result, I just assumed I didn’t have the right body to name or even define a particular look as my personal style. 

Right now, my style is about comfort. I’ve been able to find creative means of feeling held and loved in my attire. It’s hella beautiful to look at yourself in the mirror and smile back. 

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

My existence incorporates elements of Africa and Queerness. 

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?

My South African and queer identities are not mutually exclusively, but I’ve definitely been in spaces where those assumptions are held. It’s hard. There’s a privilege in having conversations here in Oakland where folks ask my pronoun preference as we’re engaging. That doesn’t happen when I’m in South Africa. I also haven’t been in queer spaces in South Africa so I also want to name that. Additionally, amazing artists such as Zanele Muholi have done a wonderful job in challenging the narrative of LGBTQ identities as a western and/or white “practice” 

Growing up, I wanted to just be an American.  I didn’t want to acknowledge any part of my South African history. I saw the racist and discriminatory acts my parents encountered from being both Black and African, so I thought to myself if I could find the best ways to put forward my respectability politics then I could prevent those encounters. 

Interestingly enough, when I moved to South Africa, I navigated through a lot of space as an American because of my accent. However, when I told folks my name, they would then respond by saying that I am a South African and that I should be proud to be an African. 

I have the tendency to get in my head a lot, particularly when I’m not in spaces where I can comfortably express my full authentic self. Finding an Afro-house playlist and getting lost in my freedom dreams can really help ease my anxiety. I’m also grateful to have found a beautiful community in Oakland. I’m hoping to cross paths and break bread with more Queer Africans in the Bay. I know we’re out here!

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

My mom is supportive, my dad is a work in progress. I went to South Africa this past summer and it was the first time going back in 5 years. Since my last visit, I am more “masculine” presenting so there was definitely a lot of thoughts around how to present myself, especially considering my visit was to honor my mama’s (grandmother) transition. I’m pretty sure everyone knows about my queerness but it’s definitely not talked about. For the few family members I told, they’ve been supportive.

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

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” - Audre Lorde

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

In the beginning, it was a learning experience, lol. Mikael really helped me become comfortable in my skin and towards the end, he was able to capture some really beautiful moments. 

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

The very fact that I get to participate! I remember coming across Limit(less) on Facebook and getting hella emotional. This is definitely needed and I’m hella grateful for this project. 

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

Instagram: @xhosaboi

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