Queer African-centric retreat coming to Big Sur

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday May 10, 2023
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Marques Redd, Ph.D., left, and Mikael Owunna, are co-founders and co-organizers of The Rainbow Serpent, which will have a retreat in Big Sur in May. Photo: Courtesy Rainbow Serpent, Inc.
Marques Redd, Ph.D., left, and Mikael Owunna, are co-founders and co-organizers of The Rainbow Serpent, which will have a retreat in Big Sur in May. Photo: Courtesy Rainbow Serpent, Inc.

A queer African-centric retreat is coming to California's central coast area later this month.

The Rainbow Serpent retreat, titled "Harnessing the Power of Creation through African Ritual," will be hosted at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur May 19-21.

This is the second time the retreat will be hosted at the center. The first event was held in October 2022.

The retreat is focused on African cosmological traditions using imagery, movement, writing, and rituals to help participants transcend personal blocks to move forward in their lives, according to organizers.

Marques Redd, Ph.D. and Mikael Owunna, co-founders and co-organizers of The Rainbow Serpent, are leading the retreat. The two recently talked about it with the Bay Area Reporter over a Zoom interview.

Redd, a 39-year-old gay Black man, earned his doctorate in English literature from UC Berkeley and an undergraduate degree in African and African American studies from Harvard University. He returned to UC Berkeley professionally, first working at the School of Public Health and then as dean of students at the College of Natural Resources from 2015 to 2020. He is an instructor at the Esalen Institute.

Owunna, a 32-year-old Nigerian genderqueer person, is a photographer and the author of "Limitless Africans: Photographs and Interviews," as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

"Rainbow Serpent and Dr. Redd have infused the Esalen community with fresh energy and innovative perspectives," wrote the Esalen Institute educational team in an email statement to the B.A.R.

The Esalen Institute educational team added, "Dr. Marques Redd's impact at Esalen is profound and exciting," and they were thrilled to have Redd and the popular Rainbow Serpent retreat return for another "memorable, soul-stirring journey."

The Rainbow Serpent takes its name from multiple African traditions that have rainbow serpent deities that create the universe, Redd told the B.A.R. He said the serpent represents the "source of creative power."

Owunna added they use the "creative forces as a way to really unleash and connect to their higher potential."

Participants at the retreat do many exercises involving imagery, movement, and ritual "to really hone in on that creative power," Redd said.


Owunna and Redd founded The Rainbow Serpent as a Black LGBTQ book club during lockdown in the early days of COVID-19 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"We really started to think about the world and our place in it," Redd said.

Owunna and Redd chose to name the organization The Rainbow Serpent because it holds multiple meanings. For example, the rainbow represents the colors of the chakras (a Sanskrit word that means wheel or cycle) and the Pride flag. The serpent, which is present in many African traditions, is a "spiritual evolutionary energy that's embedded in the body," Redd said.

"We thought that rainbow serpent would help evoke the energy work that we're hoping to do with really harnessing power, connecting to power, and using it to shift and change things," Redd said. "We thought that the rainbow serpent would be the icon or symbol that would help us do that."

The book club quickly grew, with people participating across the United States, England, and Nigeria, which inspired them to create The Rainbow Serpent to do bigger projects. One of those projects was the film "Obi Mbu (The Primordial House)," a 30-minute experimental dance film inspired by Nze Chukwukadibia E. Nwafor's teachings and book "Leopards of the Magical Dawn: Science and the Cosmological Foundations of lgbo Culture," about the lgbo tribe and culture in southeastern Nigeria, and the late Malidoma Somé, a spiritual teacher from Dano, Burkina Faso, Africa.

Somé's 1993 interview for M.E.N. magazine, "Gays: Guardians of the Gates," explores the issue of queer African spiritual traditions in depth. The story and the film are "a retelling of a Nigerian myth about the origin of the world," said Redd. Completed in 2021, the film continues to tour the U.S.

The collective, which has a core of 20 members, went on to produce public art shows, exhibits, and curations of artists' works at galleries, museums, and events and works in the U.S.

In addition to the core members, The Rainbow Serpent is also a decentralized group of artists who come together to work and support each other, Owunna and Redd said. Each artist brings a different artistic specialty to The Rainbow Serpent.

They estimate the organization has produced about 200 different events in three years by participating artists. The artwork projects and retreats are supported by grants, private donations, and commissions and sales of artworks, prints, and tickets to events, including this summer's forthcoming live performance, "The Four World Ages," at The Yard in Martha's Vineyard in July, they said. Redd declined to disclose the organization's annual budget. The organization operated under a fiscal sponsor 1Hood Media Academy until it was granted nonprofit status as Rainbow Serpent Inc. by the IRS this year, Redd said.

Importance of the work

Redd believes the work that he, Owunna, and the artists are doing at The Rainbow Serpent are not only important spiritually, but politically too.

"It's important politically for us to be doing this work," he said, putting it into context of the current "intense backlash against LGBTQ people and LGBTQ rights."

Redd pointed to the more than 470 anti-LGBTQ bills across the U.S. attacking queer and transgender people and Uganda's current anti-gay bill passed by the East African country's parliament.

"I think it's important to have people who are standing up to say, 'No. We have an important place in this culture. We have an important place in this world. We have an important lesson that we have to teach,'" Redd continued.

The Esalen Institute educational team explained, "As Pride Month approaches in June, this event holds even greater significance in light of the troubling anti-LGBTQ legislation and the persistent shadow of anti-Black violence sweeping the nation. By creating a space for healing, empowerment, and unity, we reaffirm our commitment to fostering inclusivity, understanding, and love."

Redd said, "I think it's important for our example, to remind people, even on the continent, that LGBTQ people were an important part of history, an important part of all kinds of community contexts, and an important part of the spiritual life in many different places around the continent."

In the traditions of African, Native Americans, and other Indigenous queer people Owunna and Redd see themselves as "Black LGBTQ modern-day healers."

"African rituals are certainly an important but overlooked part of our global spiritual heritage," said Redd, who was invited by the Esalen Institute to bring his teachings to the center. "As we thought about this mission of how to bring these traditional knowledge systems to the world, retreats seem to be a natural part of that development."

Owunna added they are using African cosmological traditions "as a way to heal our community, other communities, and hopefully the world in a much larger sense."

The retreat attracts a diverse community of people interested in African cosmology and spirituality. About 30 attendees participated in the first retreat, Redd said.

Some participants, speaking to Redd in a recorded testimonial after the October 2022 retreat, marveled at the connectedness, healing, community, and digging deeper into America's connection to Africa.

Patrick McCallum said in the recording he appreciated how Owunna and Redd demystified African rituals.

"People are frightened of Africa, and you are opening [it] up," said McCallum, whom Redd and Owunna identified as a 69-year-old straight man. "I think it's a gift for all of us to experience it.

"We have such a rich African connection in this country," he continued, pointing to blues, jazz, art, and dance and that generally, many Americans don't go deeper into the connection to Africa. "There is somewhere back in there, kind of the African traditions that have luckily come to this country."

Afi Shepard-Staley, whom Owunna and Redd identified as a 49-year-old straight Black woman, said in the recording that she didn't know what to expect but that the weekend exceeded her expectations.

She spoke about how Owunna and Redd created a space for "letting go of things that don't serve us anymore and stepping into these visions of what our higher selves are calling us into.

"It's really powerful," she said.

Marsalis Gibson, whom Owunna and Redd identified as a 27-year-old queer person, said in the recording, "I do want to bring back a couple of original practices and I will incorporate those into my everyday."

Owunna and Redd said they hope people will leave the retreat excited to learn more about African rituals, explore the questions raised at the retreat, and how they can apply what they learned in their own lives.

"I would like people to be just more aware of the energy and power that surrounds them at all times," Redd said.

Owunna said he hopes retreat participants leave with a toolkit with some practical rituals that they can "implement in their own daily lives and ritual practices."


Due to the rainbow serpent's prevalence in Indigenous cultures, such as Australia's aboriginal people, Redd hopes to revive "Indigenous heritage and traditions that have been lost or minimized," as well as recognize the "many ways in which LGBTQ people" are "marginalized in our contemporary world," he said.

"We think the work we're doing can have a true global impact and can be picked up in many different places," he continued. "We hope to participate in that."

To date, Redd said 20 people have registered for the retreat. There are 15 more spaces available. The entry fee is $625 to $4,885 per person, depending on accommodation, for the all-inclusive retreat. Some scholarships are available. To register for the retreat, click here.

Registration for the Rainbow Serpent October 21-23 retreat is not open yet.

Redd will also teach a workshop, "Energizing Your 9 Bodies: An Exploration of Ancient Egyptian Myth-Science," on May 22, from 7 to 9 p.m., at The Berkeley Alembic, 2820 Seventh Street. To reserve a space, click here.

Check The Rainbow Serpent website or follow the organization on Instagram for updates about events and retreats. For more information, contact [email protected]

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