From “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation" by Mikael Owunna.

The portrayal of Black bodies on the news often has been connected to violence and death, but a Highland Park-based artist is trying to change that.

“Since 2016, I’ve been working on a body of work titled ‘Infinite Essence,’ which transfigures Black bodies from sites of state violence and death — which we’ve seen in a lot of images of George Floyd, Michael Brown, etc. — into vessels of eternal life, using a combination of fluorescent and ultraviolet photography,” says Mikael Owunna, who describes himself as “a queer Nigerian-Swedish-American photographer and engineer, born and raised in Pittsburgh.”

Owunna was the recipient of a grant from Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh, a joint venture of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

He’s transformed his acclaimed work into a new public art project titled, “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation.” From June 18-30, the work will appear on 11 digital billboards and kiosks across the city to coincide with Juneteenth (the June 19th holiday celebrating the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery). The artwork will also be featured at Pittsburgh International Airport, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, Silver Eye Center for Photography and Everyday Cafe.

‘Innekouzou’ (2017) from “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation” by Mikael Owunna.
‘Innekouzou’ (2017) from “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation” by Mikael Owunna.

The idea was to “challenge these negative media images and stereotypes around the Black body, and then bring these cosmic images to the wider Pittsburgh area,” says Owunna.

Using his engineering background, Owunna built a camera flash that only transmits ultraviolet light. He starts each photoshoot by hand-painting his models’ bodies with fluorescent paints.

“The bodies glow,” says Owunna. “They emerge from the blackness; they glow that for a fraction of a second, that’s captured onto the camera sensor, and then they disappear back into the blackness.”

Mikael Owunna
“The Flying African” (2018) from “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation” by Mikael Owunna.
“The Flying African” (2018) from “Infinite Essence: Celestial Liberation” by Mikael Owunna.

New York City-based curator Larry Ossei-Mensah and Columbus-based Orange Barrel Media (which owns the electronic billboards) wanted to make the “Infinite Essence” images accessible to, well, everyone driving on the roads in Pittsburgh.

“My background prior to coming to curating was working in advertising media,” says Ossei-Mensah. “So for me, this is kind of like a normal space to kind of see images, engage with visual culture. And so, this project was actually an opportunity to disrupt that.”

Ossei-Mensah cites a 2010 study that found that 89% of museum audiences were white. So this was a way to engage with communities outside a gallery setting.

“Pittsburgh is a driving city,” says Ossei-Mensah. “We’re doing 101 things when we’re driving. And why not have something that, you know, confronts you to be aware of this conversation. But then also hopefully will invite you to ask questions like, ‘What is this, what is ‘Infinite Essence,’ who is Mikael?’”

Mikael Owunna. Photo by Nick Caito.

There will be some public events, too. On June 18, Owunna will participate in a Juneteenth Art Fair from 4 to 8 p.m. at City of Asylum on the North Side, and on June 19, he will lead a brunch conversation from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Everyday Cafe in Homewood.

See more Juneteeth events at Speed Way Line Report.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.