Archiving Queer Blackness: Working with Multimedia Artist Mikael Owunna

It may sound odd to hear that a medievalist in an English PhD program would have overlapping interests and goals with a multimedia art studio that produces fine art grounded in African cosmologies. But when I was introduced to Mikael Owunna, award-winning artist, filmmaker, and engineer, I was impressed by our common underlying goal – that of challenging heteronormative and Western expectations of media and literature. My research investigates the queer intersections of authenticity and amateurism in medieval studies, particularly considering French texts, architecture, and films like La passion de Jeanne d’arc. My multimodal, interdisciplinary approach to medieval studies has led me to develop a very flexible set of skills that I have employed as a Communications GSA at the European Studies Center (ESC) and in an administrative micro-internship with Humanities Engage in Summer 2021. Mikael Owunna Studios (MOS) is rapidly growing and its emphasis on community-engaged, public-facing humanities work means that we both profit from working together through a Humanities Engage immersive fellowship.

In the first few weeks of my immersive fellowship, I have worked with MOS to create a comprehensive media archive of references to Owunna’s work. Compiling this archive has called upon my research skills as well as my ability to develop searching and cataloguing systems. It has also worked as an introduction to the vast critical engagement surrounding his work; he has been the subject of dissertations and academic articles written in English and Spanish and composed in locations including the US, England, Spain, and South Africa. There are interviews with him in academic journals, monographs, and online magazines. Owunna has also been the subject of exhibition catalogues, podcasts, TV news stories, and radio interviews. There are other materials to be collected and properly archived as well, including videos of Q&A sessions after events, website pages that were created to promote exhibitions and other programs, and behind the scenes footage amassed while working on various projects. In many ways, this work has felt very comparable to my academic work: coming up with keywords and search terms, scanning various databases for relevant work, “scraping” the information to store in our own database, and making the data searchable.

Four Black women touching or leaning into each other
4 Queer African Women in Repose (2017), Mikael Owunna

Some of this material will make its way into a social media and marketing plan for MOS, the next phase in my fellowship. Much of my work planned for this phase is directly relevant to my previous experience with the micro-internship, in which I developed a communications plan, audit, and event campaign for the Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research. Indeed, Humanities Engage has made an invaluable impact on my post-graduate plans, making clear the broader importance of humanities skills within diverse careers like communications.

On a personal level, Owunna’s artwork leaves me breathless – his first project, Limitless Africans, documents LGBTQ African immigrants in North America and Europe, not only photographing but also documenting through interviews with the models. As a queer woman myself, how can I not be brought to a halt as I look at the queer representation so beautifully rendered in his art? This fellowship is a fantastic conception of the skills we build in the humanities, but it is, more importantly, exemplary of the type of social justice-oriented work I feel determined to pursue post-graduation.

Emilee Ruhland
Department of English
March 2022

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Immersive Fellowships and their experiences with their host organizations.