Knowing Black Muslim Women through Art

A Black Muslim artist shares how art deepens our connection to ourselves, our communities and others.

There’s an oft-repeated verse in the Quran where Allah says, “We created you in nations and tribes so that you could get to know one another”. I’ve usually heard Muslims use it as an anti-racist cry. I’m anti-racist for sure, but, for me, as a Black Muslim woman and artist this verse hints at something else that is even more important than ant-racism and perhaps even a precursor and first step in solving any societal ill – knowledge of self. On this occasion of Black History Month, let’s take the opportunity to go deeper in appreciation for Black people, Black history, contributions and culture by engaging with art.

(We) have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.

– Quran 48:13

Before we get to know one another, we need to get to know ourselves. Once we know ourselves, then we begin to love ourselves more and appreciate our own humanity. With that appreciation then we can see the value that our Creator placed in us as distinguished nations and tribes (races included) that is worthy of being communicated to others through art and other means. Once you see yourself as a human that is part of Allah’s divine creation then you can recognize others as such and treat them with the humanity and dignity that all of Allah’s creation deserves.

Nsenga Knight 2021, (from the Sajda series), Charcoal on Paper, 5.5 x 8.5 x 0.1 in

The knowing starts with ourselves: 

With my artwork, I approach the idea of “self” by making art that is as an expression of my immaterial inner being – this can be an abstract photo or gesture drawings for example. These artworks feel like something that just came out of me. Like my Sajda drawings, named after my daughter (alhumdulilah for her) who’s birth I am still in awe of. Like the word sajda or sujood for some artworks to emerge from me, I have to be a vessel that does not interfere with the birthing or a work, only submits, nurtures it and lets it come through.

Artist Nsenga Knight with her daughter Sajda (age 6 months old) in her Cairo at home studio. She holds her baby in her left arm and a Sajda Drawing named after her in her right hand.

Knowing who we are as Black Muslim women includes understanding our history and where we come from:

I grew up in a strong Black Muslim household, Afro Caribbean culture, and mosque community. 

While creating my As the Veil Turns project in 2007, I learned how my skills, personality, and vision as an artist could be at service to my community through my artwork. My predominately Black Muslim community always prided itself on being supportive of one another, encouraging, and proud our our unique history and culture. When one of the most vocal elders in our community passed away, upon learning that they were sharing space with me – a Black Muslim artist and trained filmmaker and photographer, her close sister-friends urged me to document the elders in our community to hear and preserve their experiences and stories of Islam in the Black community first-person.

Recording the oral history of the Black Muslim women in my mosque community allowed me to become a medium for the preservation of their eye witness accounts and experiences

-Nsenga knight
Black and White fine art photograph of an African American Muslim woman wearing hijab. Her head is down . She is making zhikr
Nsenga Knight 2007, As the Veil Turns: Ashura (Inner Gaze), 35mm Black and White Photography/ Archival Pigment Print, 20 x 30 inches

Recording the oral history of the Black Muslim women in my mosque community allowed me to use my role as a Black Muslim Artist to serve as a medium for the preservation of their eye witness accounts and experiences. And it is an honor to be entrusted with this role in my community. Every question I ask is an inquiry into who we are, where we come from, and words of guidance for us as a collective of Black Muslim women.

Experimentation and questioning helps us to seek out the truth, and resist stereotyping or prejudice:

I embrace experimentation in the making of all of my artwork. We often think that a certain thing leads to another thing or that one process will yield certain results, but for me experimentation uncovers the excitement that lies in the unexpected. Experimentation encourages us to learn, grow and have an open mind. Closed-mindedness leads to stereotyping and predjudice and blocks truth finding and knowledge acquisituion. Every person is a world unto themselves. An entire book of their own. Stereotyping is an easy and ignorant way out of getting to know one another. It serves no one. Opening oneself up to the work of an artist on the other hand is like entering a fantastical new world.

Before even entering a room, many of us are subject to cultural stereotypes about women, about Muslims, and about Black people

– Nsenga knight

We want to want to share who we are with others, authentically, AND, it can feel hard to do so when there are such deeply held stereotypes out in the world about who we are and what we believe. It can be even harder when we feel like aside from social media, there are so few opportunities to share our stories. Before even entering a room, many of us are subject to cultural stereotypes about women, about Muslims, about Black people.

In spite of what stereotypes and misinformation is out there, we must remain true about who we are and share our unique contributions to Black History and culture. Let people see us for who we are on our own terms and find their way in, to connect.

My artwork seeks to help us connect with ourselves, connect with others, and ultimately to be constantly ever-more conscious of our connection to our Creator.

Visit the available artworks on my site and let me know which of my artworks you connect to most.

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