These poignant and captivating images reveal the hidden beauty of our stellar origins.
You might have heard the cliché from science enthusiasts that we are "all made of stardust." It might seem like a bit of an idealistic stretch, but according to recent scientific studies, our atomic makeup does indeed share many similarities with that of our galaxy.
But in a world that is increasingly polarized and divided along any number of arbitrary sociopolitical lines, our stellar origins might seem like a faraway footnote, something to contemplate in the abstract sense, rather than perceived. Pittsburgh-born, Nigerian-Swedish artist Mikael Chukwuma Owunna, however, brings this abstract fact into full focus in his series Infinite Essence, which features images of people whose bodies have been painted with UV-reactive paint, to look like they are clothed in shimmering stars.
In particular, Owunna focuses on capturing images of Black bodies, which are often portrayed negatively in the media as "sites of death" -- often deemed by the current hegemony as disposable, inferior and "other." Frustrated by the many tragic instances of police brutalizing and killing Black people, and hoping to combat existing stereotypes, Owunna aims to offer a more positive -- and even magical -- perspective. It's a compelling concept that is also influenced by traditional African spirituality (and of the Igbo people in particular), as he explains on NPR:
Each of our spirits is just one ray of the infinite essence of the sun. And in my photography, [I'm] shooting that UV light, trying to capture that spiritual dimension that we're all on. How can I capture a piece or fragment or a shadow in that land of magic? That's what I'm grounding the project in and that's what I'm capturing, the spiritual guide for the individual models.
To create these incredible images, Owunna first enlisted friends and family to pose as models, though as word about the project spread, Owunna found himself being approached by strangers too. After the model selects their favourite colours, Owunna then paints the person's bare body with special fluorescent paints that luminesce under ultraviolet light, photographing them in complete darkness using a modified camera flash -- a process that usually takes five hours per model.
Though these photographs are magical to behold for the viewer, they are sometimes even more transformative for the person being photographed. As Owunna recounts, many of his subjects are overcome with emotion once they see themselves in these photos, portrayed in such a transcendental manner.
Intimate yet powerful, the project evokes a sense of timeless creation -- a living force that is unbounded by social prejudices. Owunna notes that this idea of evolutive transcendence is a universal one that is ultimately embodied in our flesh and bones:
Regardless of our experiences of oppression on the physical plane, we are infinite. As infinite as the universe, and the stardust that forms every fiber of our beings.
Once we have understood and affirmed that reality in our collective consciousness, what could be more transformative than actually acting upon and living out that profound truth? To see more, visit Mikael Chukwuma Owunna and Instagram.