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Mindful : October 2019
ILLUMINATE Mikael Chukwuma Owunna is an award-winning, queer, Nigerian-Swedish artist, pho- tographer, Fulbright Scholar and engineer, born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Much of Owunna’s creative work explores and celebrates identities among Black, immi- grant, and LGBTQ communi- ties. The photo project seen here, Infinite Essence, came into being through a creative synthesis of his biomedical engineering and photography expertise. “I’ve set about on a quest to recast the Black body as the cosmos and eternal,” Owunna explains on his website. “I hand-paint the models’ bodies with fluorescent paints, and using INFINITE AS THE UNIVERSE sankofa—the principle of going back and reclaiming what you left—but it’s also an opportunity for us to stop doing the heavy lifting, to take off the burden and lovingly hand it over to white human beings and say “You have some work to do.” My work is to heal. And your work is to take a look at this stuff that is really hard, and I’ll hold the space and when you get done we can come back and have this conversation. What does that look like? It ultimately requires some kind of action. You know when something’s hollow, it’s empty, right? It’s just a facade of compassion. Part of what compassion looks like is doing your own work, because white people have also been racialized. What is needed for Black people to heal from the harms of racialization? You know that old experiment about the dolls: You show kids a white doll and a Black doll and ask who’s the bad doll. All of the kids, including the Black kids, point to the Black doll. But that’s the color of their skin and you see their little faces trying to make sense of this disruption. So what has gotten internalized? That’s our work as Black people: to undo the inter- nalized oppression. That’s the lane I occupy with mindfulness. Get free and be fully human. How do people do that? First thing I always start with is know the history. And tell the truth my engineering background I have augmented a standard flash with an ultraviolet bandpass filter, to only pass ultraviolet light. Using this method, in total darkness, I click down on the shutter— ’snap’—and for a fraction of a second, their bodies illuminate as the universe.” His print medium is aluminum, “ to reflect on millennia of West African metallurgy traditions and to connect the sitters to the ancestors.” Odinani, the spirituality of the Igbo people—native to the region of southeastern Nigeria—also figures into Owunna’s series: “We believe in the existence of a ‘chi’ in every person. So just as you are seated reading this and I am here, speaking to you through the page, on the spiritual plane, our spirits, our chis are also convening together. Ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, and so we can illuminate and find—albeit temporarily—the unseeable therein, the soul, the chi. It is on this plane of existence where, regardless of our experiences of oppres- sion on the physical plane, we are infinite.” —Amber Tucker about what happened. When you start with the history and have the courage to really face that, then it’s hard to be hollow. For example, [for assimilated immigrants who pass as white], you’re coming in and stepping on the backs of Black people. Your ethnic identity fades to the back and you step in to the power and privileges that white- ness is set up to have. Until we tell the truth about that, how are you going to dismantle, disrupt, and recreate? You can’t put the good on top of the bad. You have to tell the truth about it. What about the idea that “pain is pain”? Why differentiate by skin tone— isn’t that just perpetuating divisiveness when we should be looking for our common humanity? 44 mindful October 2019