Pittsburgh’s Rainbow Serpent Celebrates Black, Queer, and Multimedia Art

Marques Redd and Mikael Owunna run Pittsburgh’s Rainbow Serpent, with a mission to advance Black LGBTQ culture through multimedia art, emerging technology, advanced healing protocols, and African cosmologies. The organization evolved via a pandemic-era Zoom book group; their exploration of Nigerian-Igbo cosmology introduced them to a captivating myth involving two deities who create the universe through dance — the catalyst for their first film Obi Mbu (The Primordial House). The collective has since collaborated on public art installations, literary works, and more.

Owunna says, “This work holds deep significance for us, as it allows Black LGBTQ people to rediscover our spiritual purpose in a world that strives to deny our humanity.” He explains that in many traditional African contexts, “the Creator was understood to be the Primordial Androgynous Blackness from which all life emerges.” The vision they’ve created has proven healing for many Black LGBTQ people who face trauma and rejection.

From Rainbow Serpent’s first performance piece, The Four World Ages

The Power of Reclaiming

At the core of his art, Redd — a traditional African cosmologist, independent scholar, and multimedia artist — focuses on reclaiming, modernizing, and expanding indigenous African knowledge systems, with emphasis on ancient Egyptian and West African (Yoruba, Dogon, Dagara and Igbo) contexts. Owunna, a multimedia artist, filmmaker and engineer, strives “to give birth to an emancipatory vision that is grounded in the splendor of ancient African worldviews and ritually elevates everyone who engages with the work I create.”

On July 29, they’ll debuted their first performance piece The Four World Ages on Martha’s Vineyard at The Yard, featuring four dancers adorned in body paint who reenact the history of humanity from the perspective of Nigerian-Igbo myth. In spring 2024, at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, they’ll premiere a series of glass sculptures of Black queer deities.

Bridging a Gap

As the president of the City of Pittsburgh’s Public Art & Civic Design Commission, Owunna strives to bridge the gap between artistic expression and civic engagement. “By applying my artistic sensibilities to public decision-making, I aim to create a more inclusive, connected, and inspiring environment that celebrates the rich cultural tapestry of Pittsburgh and empowers its residents to shape the city’s future through art and civic design,” he says.

Redd’s background in art, literature, and indigenous African knowledge systems also provides a unique lens through which to address community issues. “By emphasizing the importance of cultural heritage and spiritual connections,” he says, “I aim to bring about a deeper understanding of the communities we serve and the challenges they face. In collaboration with fellow artists, my goal is to create spaces where everyone feels heard, valued, and inspired to contribute to collective betterment.”

Relearning

In addition to drawing upon his engineering background to dissolve the Western world’s artificial boundaries between art and technology, Owunna cherishes the opportunity to reshape and share understandings of Blackness and queerness in our cultural landscape. “This work has not only given me a sense of purpose and direction on my spiritual journey,” he says, “but it has also been life-changing.”

Redd deems the last three years in Pittsburgh some of his most productive and invigorating yet. He most values “the freedom to create, to think, to feel, to nurture a vision of the world to come.”

Story by Corinne Whiting / Photography courtesy of Rainbow Serpent

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