A Deeper Connection to Cairo

Projection of Malcom X on wall, artist Nsenga Knight and Translator Samah Gafar in from of audience of Cairenes at the COntemporary Image Collective in Cairo Egypt. Nsenga Knight performs her X Speaks performance art and social practice work

When I first moved to Cairo, I admittedly felt a little lost. I didn’t understand the language, I felt like I looked so different from most the people who I passed by from day to day, and I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how I might continue to grow as an artist in such a far away and off the art-grid of a city that I perceived Cairo to be. I felt very attached to the arts community of America and felt comfort in still being in the second year of an artist residency at the Drawing Center in New York. It was hard for me to admit to the fact that I was here. How might I connect to Cairo as an artist? How could I grow? 

What I’ve learned is that in reality there were many ways in which I wanted and needed to grow and Cairo remains the best place to facilitate my desires in life right now. Cairo is a crossroads – an ancient city that it hip to everything new and has sights on a greater future. She is porous – both African and Arab. Islamic and Pharonic. Pleasant and highly political. We call her “Crazy Cairo” like that uncle, but we know she is wise and inside very peaceful.

I love the Egyptian people. I’ve presented about my artwork here a few times, but never exhibited my work at one of its many art institutions. I questioned my relevance. It felt that every institution desired to promote the work of Egyptian and Arab artists, who clearly need a platform to share their work. What am I? An American, Black, and Muslim expat international artist with connections to the continent of Africa due to my ancestry, and the specificity Egypt due to my religion. I would ask myself: what is the context for which my work could fit in here? Now I realize that my work never really fits in. The question I ask now is: How can I give value?

Nsenga Knight 2022, X Speaks: An Appeal to African Heads of State at the Contemporary Image Collective, Performance Art and Social Practice

My X Speaks: An Appeal to African Heads of State social practice and performance art work at the Contemporary Image Collective allowed the people of Cairo to connect to their history and place in relation to the African American struggle and understand the ways that Malcolm X perceived their role as Afro Arabs and Muslims in the context of a world-wide freedom struggle. It helped me to further understand my place in this world of mine and the value that I can offer as an artist with my particular interests and biography.

Now, as I begin my 7th year in Cairo, I’ve become more clear that I must contribute my art to whichever place I am. It helps me make sense of the world I find myself in, and it helps me provide value to the people I find myself amongst. I don’t know how that will manifest in each place and moment, but art has proven to me to be my best mode of transportation for moving through the world and connecting to others for whom I might not otherwise easily connect to. It’s an offering and a service. 

Nsenga Knight and Samah Gafar at the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo presenting X Speaks in front of a full audience. A projection of Malcolm X interview in Cairo is behind them.
Nsenga Knight 2022, X Speaks: An Appeal to African Heads of State, Performance Art and Social Practice, Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo, Egypt

Seeing art and engaging with it with others is always a great way to connect with family, friends, and strangers alike. There were people in the audience who had no idea what their friend was bringing them too, but left thanking both their companion and I saying they had never experienced anything like my X Speaks performance in their lives. 

I really dig deep to create something that fully expresses my creative ideas so it can only be something special and unique. I only wish for more people to engage with art on a more consistent and intimate scale. That’s why I share my art and make some of it available for people to purchase and bring into their personal space. We should never underestimate the powerful connections that can be forged through art. One of the newest works available on my website is the Last Rite print series which reflects on the socio-political and metaphysical conditions of Malcolm X’s janaza (islamic funeral rituals). Many people courageously gathered to perform a ritual that would honor their slain hero Malcolm X. We all need to be reminded to live our highest principles.

Click on the link below to inquire about the Last Rite print series.

Nsenga Knight 2011, Last Rite, Lithography and Archival Pigment Print, 14.5 x 20 inches
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