Mikael Owunna, Oku na Mmiri (Fire and Water), 2018, from the series Infinite Essence. Courtesy of the artist.
The video is less than five seconds, but from the matte darkness glints a body studded with pinpricks of light, suspended in mid-air. Behind the camera, focused and bent at the knee, is Mikael Owunna in the process of adding to his photographic series Infinite Essence (2016–). For generations, Black thinkers have been constructing the way out of an epistemological brutality that proves deadly even to those it is meant to benefit. Race, class, gender, the implied lack of value in certain identities, and the maintenance of hierarchies are beliefs that are surely killing us. The work of Owunna is string theory via the vibratory permeability of Black flesh (a resonance, a wavelength), and his rendering of it in light shows us how to jump quantumly back into a knowledge that has waited quietly for contraction, for return. A photographer, an engineer, and now a growing spiritual and philosophical historian of multiple African cultures, Owunna follows the future ripples of impacts past; he will meet you on the other side.
Jessica Lanay Last we spoke, you mentioned you are researching African cosmologies. Which ones have interested you, and what have you learned from them?
Mikael Owunna I have been focusing on Igbo cosmologies, coming from an Igbo background myself. Also, Dogon cosmologies. I have touched a little on ancient Kemetic and Kushite, but I haven’t gotten as deep into those yet. Hopefully, I will work on that next year. What was inspirational for me was the understanding of the primordial state and articulations of blackness. We have this space at the beginning of the universe which is one, black, singular, and infinite. There is a polyvalent understanding of the nature of blackness. There was this original androgyny when everything was one but everything at the same time. We see that in the articulation of the Dogon god Amma; we see that from the Igbo context with the Igbo high-god Chukwu and the myth of the shattering of the world and the expansion of duality with his feminine double, Eke-Nnechukwu. There is this interesting way we think about the existence of origin that leads to duality. I think there is this space at the beginning that is really important for me because it rearticulates an understanding of Western gender.
Within our African cosmological traditions we did have an articulation of blackness, but we thought about blackness as a divine cosmic principle of the universe. That’s a whole different way of thinking about blackness, the blackness of space, of our bodies, of our cores, of the womb, of the first people. I think those are some of the things that as Black people we pull from these heritages; it is literally inside us. And across the diaspora. We are intuitively doing it. The role of the image and the role of art is for us, for me as an image-maker, to create images that reflect the divine nature of Blackness.
JL I want to dig into this aspect of physics, astronomy, and cosmology. You have stated in other interviews that photography is your way of imagining the Black body outside of violence, outside of gender structures, as infinitely possible. How does this connect with entropy?
MO One of the things about the Western astronomical context is that it is always thousands of years behind African traditions. There is this idea that there was the Big Bang and that the universe is expanding. Now there are certain theorists that are talking about the idea of the Big Crunch; we have this big expansion, and then this contraction back into one.
Within the Dogon cosmology, Amma, the primordial androgynous creator, opened their eyes, created the universe, and the universe expanded out, and then the Dogon say that at the end of the universe Amma closes their clavicles again and the universe comes back into one. There is this emergence from blackness of all of these different forms, and then there is a return. I think also of the aspect of ritual. Initiations involve a similar ritualized separation, transformation, and return when people move through different age groups and different titles within African and African diasporic societal traditions that mimic the cosmological understandings of the universe.
Mikael Owunna, Go Sa (Sister of the Dance), 2019, from the series Infinite Essence. Courtesy of the artist.
JL What was your path to working in the matrix between your engineering background and photography?
MO Once again, this is one of the limitations of Western conceptualizations. African mythologies were systems of knowledge that fused science, religion, and art to elevate human consciousness. It is when you enter into a Western frame that you get disconnection and separation. The space of the polymath is one that has been a central idea in African societies and African diasporic communities. Everywhere we go we have had to do everything for ourselves.
For me, I studied biomedical engineering in college, and that’s when I started doing photography. People thought maybe it was the chemistry aspect, but I never used the darkroom. I was focused on shooting digital. One of the people who is an important touchstone historically here is Benjamin Banneker, a Black polymath in the 1700s. He wrote a very famous letter to Thomas Jefferson talking about his humanity, his intelligence. And Jefferson was just like, no. Bannaker wrote his own almanac, designed incredible timepieces. He was an astronomer. When I think about working between engineering and trying to think about the connection between the Black body and the stars, I think about Banneker.
I was looking at the available canon of images to see if there was something representing the astral and the ethereal that would connect the Black body to the cosmos. I tried projections onto the bodies, where you lost the articulation of an individualized, ethereal form. I tried light painting where I ran around the models with lights and long exposures, and this process also did not connect to the body directly. It was not emerging from the body. When I was in high school I was really into Final Fantasy and other games that had magic in them. I looked at some of those images, and they had all of these sparkles, sparkles, sparkles. I was returning to these images, and a voice came into my head and said, “Put the sparkles on the body,” and I said, “Oh-KAY!” I was looking at glow-in-the-dark paint, then I looked at fluorescent paint, and then I started learning about how ultraviolet light can illuminate paints to create this effect called ultraviolet-induced fluorescence that glows and disappears. That’s when I started learning about how to build my own flash that could emit ultraviolet light. I took an old Canon speedlight and removed its filters, and I placed an ultraviolet band-pass filter on top of where the light emerges. That allows the ultraviolet light to emerge from the flash when I press down on the shutter, and the ultraviolet light interacts with the paint on the different models’ bodies.
Mikael Owunna, Nommo Die and Nommo Titiyane, 2019, from the series Infinite Essence. Courtesy of the artist.
JL I see your work in the lineage of Ming Smith. There is something about the movement, the ethereal, and the ecstatic of her work that harmonizes with yours. Her photo of Sun Ra shares a similar language to works from Infinite Essence.
MO Nobody has ever made that connection before, and I love it. Absolutely. Let’s just start with that Sun Ra image. There’s this aspect of movement, and what it also brings up for me is the idea of the masquerade. In West African contexts there is an idea that the masquerade is in constant motion; you have to look at it from different angles to understand the totality while also understanding that the masquerade also represents the universe. The universe is constantly vibrating, constantly spinning; the masquerade is constantly vibrating and constantly spinning. Smith’s image captures that vibration. And that vibration is at the core of all beings and all particles.
JL So much of Blackness is discussed in terms of invisibility and hypervisibility, but your photography somehow shows and shields, returns privacy to your subjects. Can you speak more about that?
MO When we do the photoshoots for the Infinite Essence series, I tell the models to bring a family member or friend who can help with the process and assist in thinking about a level of comfort. The painting process takes between thirty minutes to an hour depending on what type of paints we’re using and what kind of patterns I want to be thinking about. When we start the painting, there is this interesting moment when they feel very much nude. But when we finish painting the bodies, they don’t feel “naked.” They feel like they have a shield on, clothing. I think that the paint and technology does add a space of intimacy but also protection.
I am also thinking about what it means to photograph and display Black genitalia. I think there are some images that I have produced that I am actually getting ready to release, and these embrace showing the body in all of its “glory,” and I think that is an important shift, one that I am still considering how it is going to be received.
Mikael Owunna, Lébé and His Articulations, 2019, from the series Infinite Essence. Courtesy of the artist.
JL What’s next? What’s percolating in your imagination?
MO I am working on my first film right now, co-directed with Marques Redd. It is a film that comes from the Infinite Essence universe. Moving into motion is a way to explore these messages and myths. We will be wrapping up rehearsals and going into shooting soon. That is the big thing that I have been trying to work on simultaneously while doing the research to pull in the myths that I have been learning. Look forward to the film! It is one of those things too, just as a context, the first time we do anything, it is not going to be perfect. Not going to be perfect.
Mikael Owunna: Be Chukwu (Divine Realm of the Creator) is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh in Raleigh, North Carolina, until August 8.