Pittsburgh-Based Photographer Plumbs The ‘Infinite Essence’ Of Black Bodies

It was June 18, and four electronic billboards featuring his photographs had already been up for 13 hours or so alongside a major highway. But Mikael Owunna was still excited.

Mikael Owunna

Nathan Shaulis

Mikael Owunna grew up in Pittsburgh and moved back in 2017.

“Oh, there it is, on that side!” hollered Owunna, who was behind the wheel of his sister’s black SUV on the shoulder of Pittsburgh’s Route 28, near Sharpsburg. He was riding with curator Larry Osei-Mensah; Corey Favor, of outdoor media company Orange Barrel Media; and his own cousin, Isabelle Analo.

Owunna had just seen one of the distinctive portraits in his series “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation” flash on the screen, scaled up to roadside proportions.

The studio photos of Black people are stunning: shot in ultraviolet light with special camera gear, the naked subjects streaked with fluorescent paint so they resemble patches of night sky thick with stars glowing purple, gold, and blue. Their bodies float in darkness, as if in a womb.

“We can see the essence of the Black body as this cosmic vessel that connects us to the origins of the universe.”

Mikael Owunna

The portraits, which have titles including “The Flying African” and “Nommo Semi, The Guardian of Space,” have won the Pittsburgh native international acclaim, with works exhibited around the U.S. and as far afield as Kobe, Japan, and Yerevan, Armenia. But the billboard project, in tandem with showings on Spin electric-scooter kiosks around town, was Owunna’s first public-art project, and his biggest showing ever in his hometown.

“Seeing it here, in a public-facing format, on a digital screen, is fantastic!” he said, standing on the roadside by the images, which were as large as 60 feet wide by 20 feet high. “I’ve never seen my work at such large scale, too.”

It’s proving to be a busy year for Owunna, 30. The public-art initiative also included displays of “Infinite Essence” photos at locations including Pittsburgh International Airport; Pittsburgh Glass Center, in Friendship (where he is doing an artist residency on glassmaking); and Homewood’s Everyday Café. And in September comes his first solo exhibit in New York City, at Chelsea gallery ClampArt, which includes the debut of his first venture into filmmaking.

For an artist who has big hopes for his work, it’s a great opportunity. Owunna is trying to do nothing less than change the culture’s conversation around Black bodies.

“Having someone sort of transform the Black body in the way that Mikael is doing, … that’s exciting and unusual to me,” said ClampArt owner Brian Paul Clamp.

Owunna’s art career was initially inspired by an identity crisis of sorts. He was raised in Pittsburgh by his mother, the pediatrician Catherine Ngozi Udekwu. (She is of Nigerian-Swedish ancestry, and had met Mikael’s father, Clement Owunna, who is Nigerian, in her own father’s homeland.) As a college freshman, Owunna was still coming to terms with his queer identity when he took his annual family Christmas trip to Nigeria. Some relatives were upset by his sexuality.

“It’s about bringing the beauty that’s inside and the drama and the essence and the power that’s inside of you, and showing it on the surface.”

Derek Brockington

“I was told this was not of our culture, to be LGBTQ,” he said. “And so coming out of that experience I fell into a lot of anxiety and depression, feeling like I didn’t have a right to exist.”

At Duke University, he studied biomedical engineering and history. But what felt most rewarding was a hobby: photography. “When I picked up a camera, I felt like I found my voice again,” he said. “It became a creative and emotional outlet for me at a moment when I felt really voiceless.”

His first body of work came out of a Fulbright Fellowship during which he taught photography to indigenous people in Taiwan. A later series fell closer to home: portraits of LGBTQ African immigrants living in Europe and North America. The project resulted in a photo book, “Limitless Africans.”

In 2014, the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., planted the seed for “Infinite Essence.” Owunna said he was struck by “how [Brown’s] body was left in the street for hours, and then the media took images of the body and then sent it across the world without the consent of his family. After that I kept seeing this litany of Black bodies: Philando Castile, Antwon Rose [II], Tamir Rice, George Floyd just last year. And I wanted to think about how I could use my skills as a photographer and engineer, how could I transfigure black bodies from being these sites of death and state violence into these cosmic vessels.”

By the time Owunna moved back to Pittsburgh, in 2017, he had developed the basic technique for “Infinite Essence.” It’s a canny blend of the fluorescent body paint he streaks and dabs onto his models and some custom-made technology: a flash he built himself that transmits only ultraviolet light.

“So in total darkness I press down on the shutter, and a beam of ultraviolet light is then emitted which illuminates the bodies for a fraction of a second, that’s then captured onto the camera sensor, using an effect known as ultraviolet-induced fluorescence,” he said. “Using that method I’m able to actually capture and transfigure black bodies into these cosmic ethereal vessels in these images.”

His aim is both political and spiritual.

“Through the medium of the ultraviolet fluorescence, we move from the visible spectrum where we have all the systems of oppression — white supremacy and anti-Blackness — to interacting with a spectrum of light that’s … beyond what’s visible to the human eye. We can see the essence of the Black body as this cosmic vessel that connects us to the origins of the universe.”

Lilli Hime, a freelance arts programmer, notes that “Infinite Essence” arrived on the scene years before businesses began posting “Black Lives Matter” signs in their storefronts and on their websites. “The public attitude around Black Lives Matter was very different. It was still seen as a controversial thing to say,” said Hime, who arranged a solo exhibit for Owunna this year at Prizer Arts and Letters, a gallery in Austin, Texas.

Owunna currently works out of a studio in Uptown. His practice incorporates traditional African creation myths of both the Igbo people, of Nigeria, and the Dogon, in Mali.

“In a lot of my work I connect Black bodies of the present to our ancestral ideas of the cosmos,” he said.

If that connection is implicit in his “Infinite Essence” photos, it will be more explicit in “Obi Mbu (The Primordial House).” His first film will use dancers painted in the style of “Infinite Essence” to act out stories from that mythology.

Owunna’s co-director on the short film is Marques Redd, who is senior director of graduate advising engagement in the humanities at the University of Pittsburgh. He says Owunna’s photographs alter our frame for thinking about human life.

“You on the one hand feel like you are back at the beginning of creation, seeing things emerge from the primordial blackness as if for the first time, but at the same time, we get a sense of a futuristic move back into the heavens, back into the cosmos, understanding what human life can possibly be once we think about and elevate our understanding to a certain level,” he said.

While all Owunna’s “Infinite Essence” models are Black, he has worked with people of multiple body types and gender identities. The models collaborate in choosing the paint colors — gold, blue, green — and poses. Owunna said models are often moved by the finished portraits. One, he said, told him “that every Black person deserves to see themselves in this way.”

Derek Brockington is a ballet dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem who modeled for Owunna. Brockington calls the cosmic portrait series transformative for people of color.

“Oftentimes the outside world can make our insides feel so small and make ourselves feel so small,” said Brockington. “And I think with ‘Infinite Essence’ it’s about bringing the beauty that’s inside and the drama and the essence and the power that’s inside of you, and showing it on the surface.”

Four years after his return to Pittsburgh, Owunna has gotten a lot of support from local arts funders, including a 2020 Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments toward the making of his film “Obi Mbu.”

He is also getting increasingly tied in to the local arts community. The “Infinite Essence” billboard series, for example, debuted the day of “Art as Liberation: Celebrating Black Art in Pittsburgh,” a festival timed to coincide for Juneteenth. Owunna curated the festival featuring 15 locally based artists, which was organized with partners including City of Asylum and 1Hood Media.

The billboard exhibition, meanwhile, was arranged by Larry Ossei-Mensah, a New York-based curator who has worked internationally and worked out the arrangement with Orange Barrel Media.

“Historically, the media has portrayed Black bodies, if it’s outside of sports and entertainment, negatively,” said Ossei-Mensah. “That has psychological effects, particularly for Black folks, in not feeling safe, not feeling like there’s a sense of belonging. And so how use art as a tool to … counteract, maybe, that feeling and that emotion?”

“Infinite Essence,” at present, includes no more than 30 portraits. But it continues to resonate widely. Ten more portraits in the series will debut in September at ClampArt. Another solo show debuts in September at Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh, in North Carolina, and a third in November, at the Iris Project, in Los Angeles.

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