Ode to the Black Body: Melinda Pierre-Paul Cardinal on the Photography of Montreal's Mikael Owunna

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Infinite Essence: an Ode to the Black Body

Never Apart, Montreal QC

by Melinda Pierre-Paul Cardinal

NOTE: Infinite Essence is a photography exhibition created in 2017 by Nigerian-Swedish American photographer Mikael Owunna

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

One cannot help but feel awestruck as they explore Mikael Owunna’s exhibition: Infinite Essence, and are faced with a dozen photographs of scintillating black subjects. Each subject’s skin glistens, reflecting light in the otherwise dark photographs as reminiscent of the cosmos. As such, they appear to take on a godlike quality, as though at home amidst the constellations. Through this technique, Owunna elicits a fantasy, captivating a sense of magic while challenging perceptions of what it means to be black in North America.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

In his photographs, Owunna invites ultraviolet paint and black light to play with light and shadow, displaying a masterful technique of chiaroscuro. As his models’ bodies bear specks of reflective paint in varying hues of purple, blue, green and silver, they generate a luminosity that is crucial to reading the dark photographs. This provides the subjects’ skin with an elevated value, as though  taking on the role of the canvas for the glimmering splashes of paint.

Owunna’s seductive models are exclusively black, reveling in the emphasis of their black skin. They stand tall, their beauty barely contained, as though gracing us with their very presence. Interestingly, their idyllic representations contrast the contemporary realities of being black within North America. Notably, that black people face race-infused social disadvantages that vary from daily microaggressions, and prejudices, to systematic and institutionalized racism. Owunna’s sublime aesthetic composition, therefore, allows for the black body to symbolically transcend social prejudice.

In terms of intention, Infinite Essence was devised as a response to the images of dead and dying black and brown bodies and to an ongoing problem of racial tensions within the United States of America2. Specifically, Owunna was troubled by images of African American men such as Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and Mike Brown, who were shot and killed by police officers in recent years, despite being unarmed. Instead of delving into this bleak imagery however, Owunna has created images that defy the trope of the black body as a site of death and abuse3.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

His photographs offer a representation of black people that transcends time and space, liberating the black body from a history of oppression and violence that continues today4. His Models become synonymous to the wonder and awe that we reserve for space and the cosmos.

Despite that Owunna was inspired by the tumultuous position that black men hold in America, it is significant to note that he creates images of black people in an inclusive way; incorporating both male and female subjects. Save for a few exceptions, the women are depicted with a particularly provocative intensity. Photographs such as Carefree Timewalker and Inter-Galactic Princess, discloses women looking straight ahead, through the lens of the camera and into the viewer’s eyes.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

The effect is impactful, as the unavoidable eye contact creates an illusion of mutual observation between the subject and viewer. In turn, the viewer may feel unsettled. A sense of being surveilled.

Who then is the intended subject within Owunna’s exhibition? Is it the conventional subject, or has Owunna slyly shifted the lens to incorporate the viewer5? This ambiguity is particularly effective as it urges us to situate ourselves in relation to the figures in the photographs. Thus fostering a brief critical moment of consideration that jolts us out of apathetic viewing and into a moment of human connection.

With the exception of performance and interactive art, viewers are typically allocated the privilege of gazing upon subjects in artworks at their own leisure. This creates a sense of authority that viewers hold over the subjects, who are objectified, exposed and vulnerable to the viewers’ voyeuristic gaze. By contrast, the women in Infinite Essence, defy these power dynamics by holding viewers accountable for the ways in which they observe. This interaction is especially jarring because the viewer is robbed of the expectation of control within their experience of art viewing.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

Moreover, the confrontation—between subject and viewer—is effective because Owunna’s subjects bear intersectional disadvantages as black women within a predominantly-white patriarchy6. By holding eye contact, they reject the passive role of being casually exotified and sexualized, and make us aware of our potential patriarchal, or colonial gaze. As such, Owunna provides a comprehensive body of work that frees the black men and women who continue to face intersectional means of oppression within our society.

In its entirety, Infinite Essence is an exhibition that promotes ethnocultural diversity by providing empowering images of the black body that contrasts the violence, oppression and degradation that have become representative of black lives within North America. It challenges our constructed and problematic acceptance of the black body as a site of death, and conversely, expresses that the black body can be a site of magic, beauty and power.

Infinite Essence acts then, as a visual ode to blackness, its photographs; symbolic love letters and tender words of reassurance, that convey that black people are worthy of both recognition and appreciation. It asks us to challenge our biases and consider how we may collectively set the black body free from the shackles of racial prejudice, in order for us all to move forward into a better, kinder, and more inclusive society. As such, Owunna offers an alternative, a fantastical reality where the black body is empowered. One where black people are completely limitless.

Having been originally presented in Montreal in January as part of a group vernissage called Winter 2018, Infinite Essence is being presented until April 7th at Never Apart in Montreal, a non-profit organization that aims to inspire social change and diversity through their cultural programming.


“About.” Mikael Owunna Photography. Accessed February 13, 2018. http://www.mikaelowunna.com/about. 

“About.” Never Apart. Accessed January 29, 2018. https://www.neverapart.com/about/.

“Infinite Essence.” Mikael Owunna Photography. Accessed February 13, 2018. http://www.mikaelowunna.com/infinite-essence.

 “Infinite Essence.” Never Apart. Accessed February 12, 2018. https://www.neverapart.com/exhibitions/infinite-essence/.

Spayde, Jon. "A Placemaking Glossary: Here are some terms you need to know now." Public Art Review, no. 56  (2017): 29. Art Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed March 1, 2018).

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