The Archive Tells a Different Story: Why I Create and Use Archives in My Artwork

I was raised by parents who are converts to Islam and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the United States. In the immediacy of our home, family, mosque and neighborhood we were normal. It was only when I peaked out into the larger context of New York City or the media that I realized we were different. Dominant narratives are silent about us, and could lead you to believe that we don’t exist. As an artist, I first began by creating an archive of my own community. The archive tells a different story and often contradicts dominant narratives.

Nsenga Knight is a Black Muslim Artist and she is interviewing an African American Muslim woman at her Brooklyn mosque  for her photography and oral history art project
Nsenga Knight interviewing Alberta at Masjid Abdul Muhsi Khalifah in Brooklyn for As the Veil Turns, 2007, Black and White 35mm photography/ Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 20 inches

As new Muslims, my family didn’t have ingrained Islamic traditions that we practiced just because, we were learning them through our rituals and creating a new Black Muslim culture from in our every day expressions at home and in our communities. As immigrants, we were holding onto traditions and preserving them in our food, stories, music, dance, and even our attitudes towards life. This duality, creating new traditions, and preserving an old one, taught me that we have a choice in what we bring forth from the past and that what we do now is going to set the framework for what our future generations will think and do.

Creating an Archive…We Were Not the First

But, we weren’t the first. My generation of Black Muslim women is just one generation away from the first large group of Black Muslim people in the United States. There are very few Black Muslims from my parents generation who were actually raised Muslim, most of them are converts, but for my generation it is common enough that if you go to a Muslim gathering a significant amount of the Black Muslims there were actually raised by Muslim parents who are converts.

malcolm X janaza islamic funeral in artwork by Nsenga Knight
Nsenga Knight 2011, Last Rite (burial), 2011, Lithography and Archival Pigment Print, 14.5 x 15 inches

Black people, women and Muslims are the studied subjects used to promote various agendas. That first generation (my parents’) has been written about and documented because of their relationship to the civil rights and Black power movements of the 1960s and 70’s, namely the Nation of Islam. But, there are only a few books or media of any sort written about them at that time, from their own community. There is a difference when someone chooses to share their story within the context of community. There is safety and care in community , as opposed to spectatorship or investigation.

The Archive Speaks for Itself

Black and White portrait Photograph of Black Muslim  woman with zhikr beads seated in a meditative way
Nsenga Knight 2007, As the Veil Turns: Ashura, Black and White Photography, 30 x 20 inches

I’m constantly interested in the perspective of the subject – and what we have to say about ourselves. I created As the Veil Turns so my elders could share their stories with me, with others like me, and to speak for ourselves within the context of our community. These first-hand accounts about the beginnings of large communities of Black Muslims practicing Islam in America as told by Black women from my sunni-Muslim community are the untold stories which tend to detail a spiritual journey that rarely captures the attention of the media which prioritizes a political Islam that is constantly at war with “the West”. As an artwork, As the Veil Turns is an an autonomous space of sharing and opportunity for others to listen in from outside.

I think about the ways that archiving and documenting ones own story has the power to shift the narratives being told about an entire group of people. Read my previous blog post: The Timbuktu African Manuscripts, Omar Sa’id and Ibrahim Sori: An Islamic, Black Muslim and Black American Intellectual Continuum where I share about the ways I’m using archives in my artwork and how the newly available Timbuktu archives are shifting the narrative about the African, Islamic, Black Muslim and Black American intellectual tradition.

The Archive Needs to Come ALIVE

Most archives are house in libraries and archival institutions that very few people visit. They are collected and buried like the dead people who created them. The archive needs to come alive. Information is useless if nobody knows about it. Through my artwork I seek to resurrect these old relics of knowledge to reposition them within our current context so that we can better understand who we are now and what we should do in relation to our history. What do we want to bring forth? What should we leave behind?

Black and white arabic and english script by Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori above text in english on 2 prints
Nsenga Knightm 2009, This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word for It

When we know who we are in relation to our history then we understand our value within the larger context of the world and can forge deeper connections to others. It’s important for us to get to know one another for who we truly are.

The Archive is an Abstraction of the Past

It’s important for us to realize that archives are abstract samples from our past. They too don’t tell the whole story. As an artist, the archive sparks my curiosity and imagination. When I’m creating artwork from an archive material I’m asking the audience to build something in their own mind and wonder as much about what is left out of the work as what is included.

Text by Prince Ibrahim Sori an African Muslim prince enslaved in antebellum America is incorporated into a wall drawing by Nsenga Knight
Nsenga Knight 2009, A Cross Time, Silkscreened Wall Drawing with Ink and Adhesive Material, Dimensions Vary according to Wall Size

To me, the archive in inherently abstract. It is a selection from all of the things and ideas from the past. It’s the one that made it to us from a distant past. Like photographs, archives are also things that tell the story of it’s making as well as the maker. They aren’t neutral. They aren’t the whole story. They are clues. Let’s get curious!

Create and Create Again

Most of what was created in the past was not physically preserved. So, when we are confronted with an archive, we should wonder why that one remains. We should think not only about the person it describes, but also the person who preserved it, and why they chose to keep it, and why generations more chose to care for it. And, even more, why Allah/ God the Creator want us to see it now.

two abstract photographs by Nsenga Knight reflect on Allah's attribute as the living creator and archival practices
Nsenga Knight, 2016, Plateau #1, 32 x 40 inches, archival inkjet print (r) Nsenga Knight, 2017, Plateau #2, 32 x 40 inches, archival inkjet print

I’m always reflecting on these inner-workings and more spiritual aspects of existence. My Plateaus series is an ongoing, non-linear series of abstract photographs. It asserts that like the archives – photographs are things. They are archives of past gestures. The Plateaus series reflects on a Sufi principle called “qayummia” which means creation in every moment. In this series I seek to remind us that everything is alive. Allah is constantly creating and recreating. We learn in physics that nothing is destroyed, it is only transformed. Even when we die, our spirits carry on. Archives are a testament to the existence of things, people and experiences beyond our immediate perception. Click here to inquire about my Plateaus series.

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