In his illuminating portrait series “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation,” 30-year-old artist Mikael Owunna captures the soul of his subjects. Deeply spiritual and enthralling, the images feature the entire cosmos positioned within Black bodies. Some bodies are seen postured in a fetal position, floating in boundless space.
There is a profound sense of inner peace within the subjects’ faces––the serenity that comes when we remember the essence of our being. “We can see the essence of the Black body as this cosmic vessel that connects us to the origins of the universe,” said Owunna in an interview with Pittsburgh’s WESA.
The series has gained worldwide recognition, and has been exhibited throughout the United States along with Japan and Armenia. This summer, Owunna began his first public art project with the series. Displayed on large scale digital screens throughout his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the message behind the artwork is intensified when shown on a billboard that is 60 feet wide.
Infinite Essence was created in response to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. Owunna told WESA that it was appalling to see how Brown’s lifeless body was left in the street for hours, to watch the media’s unethical response to the killing, and how his 18-year-old body was sent across the world without his family’s approval. “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,” he said.
“What if the images you see of people who look like you are dead and dying bodies? How does that affect the way you move through the world and enter your body? With this series, I’ve set about on a quest to recast the Black body as the cosmos and eternal,” wrote Owunna in his artist statement. He described the artistic process, which is nearly as fascinating as the final result. “I hand paint the models’ bodies with fluorescent paints, and using 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.”
Highlighting the soul that resides within these temporary bodies is Owunna’s intent, and he does this brilliantly. If one recognizes the soul in another, racism must cease to exist, as racism is only viable on a superficial level. Infinite Essence aims to remind others of this.
“In Igbo spirituality, odinani, we believe in the existence of a “chi” in every person,” he wrote. “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 oppression on the physical plane, Black people are infinite.”
The public art project will be on display throughout Pittsburgh until the end of July. Currently featuring around 30 portraits, Infinite Essence will include 10 new works for an upcoming show in September at ClampArt. Another solo show for Owunna will also debut in September at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. In November, his last solo show of the year will premiere at the Iris Project in Los Angeles.