Art Can Hold This

I grew up in a predominately Black American mosque community in Brooklyn, NY – which I later learned was really more specifically a predominately Black Caribbean American mosque community in Brooklyn (it’s been that way since the 1960’s) and I was raised by parents who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted so long as it served the community. Those were my guidelines and career advise. In this blog post I’m sharing with you a meandering path on how I chose to follow through and to hold on to this advise in the arts. 

Nsenga Knight in her Queens Museum studio Feb2023

My sisters and I liked to organize stuff just for fun and also to share knowledge, make money and raise funds for community organizations including the Sister Clara Muhammad school at our mosque. So, even as a teen, we were organizing game nights and performances at the mosque and giving a portion of the proceeds to the private school, giving scholarships to other young people in the community, getting sponsorship from local businesses, and packing the venues we rented out with other teens who were looking for a good time and a place to share their talents, mix and mingle.

I remember adults coming up to me asking for consultation – how did you do that? How much time did you take to plan? How did you sell your tickets and get sponsors? And, I literally had an answer for everything… And it was easy for me and it was fun. 

wall in Nsenga Knight’s studio

My first job ever in life was as a Peer Educator for an organization based out of Brooklyn’s Downstate Hospital called THEO – Teens Helping Each Other. We used a combination or theater, workshops, and street outreach to teach other young people about HIV/ AIDS and STD prevention. You might think this was an odd job for a young Muslim girl and maybe it was, but I knew that a problem is not only a problem if it’s my problem. This was the mid-90’s when HIV/ AIDS was rampant in the Black and Latio communities especially and I cared because I did. 

We worked with high-risk populations which included LGBTQ teens and people of all ages who were acutely affected. I remember the kids from the Lower East side of Manhattan being especially wild and a half! They told us about stuff that I’m still trying to not figure out what they were talking about. I did none of the crazy stuff they did, but I still listened and learned and taught and connected with them as people do when they have an open heart.

With all of what was constantly taught about how to lower the risk of STDs and HIV/ AIDS transmission I saw one area which was constantly overlooked which could help more people and especially those in my mosque community – abstinence. So at the ripe age of about 15 years old, I created a module to teach abstinence within the framework of prevention. Look, if I (a very low risk teenager) could teach people how to wear a condom, y’all could teach people how to not even need one and do a better job at saving their lives. Everyone at THEO was super receptive to my ideas and I even brought my workshops to my mosque. 

So much that was happening on the outside was happening to us too. It frustrated and saddened me that every summer when I returned home from Howard University between semesters, I saw that a teen girl was pregnant, not married, very unlikely planned and though it was catching on like a virus in the Black Muslim communities in Brooklyn, no one had anything to say about it. Perhaps we were all just too ashamed.

Nonetheless, I went to Howard, studied film, travelled the world, pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha and led in the Muslim Students Association at the same time. I was also a writer and editor for Howard’s newspaper the Hilltop. I actually entered Howard as a Business major, but quickly realized that it was too rigid for my liking and once I worked on my very first film crew and got a taste of what it was like to be a part of a creative process – even as a boom mic operator, I was sold. That was it, I was going to be an artist or filmmaker of some sort.

Art was expansive. 

Everything I wanted to do: teach, connect with people, organize, create, imagine, research, perform, lead, and collaborate… I could do it in the arts.

Art could hold this.

Later on I went to UPenn and my whole intention in going was to expand. And I did. I was challenged by my professors, especially Terry Adkins and gained a deeper appreciation for the many levels and tenors of being an artist and what art could be. For me it could be anything.

In social practice I was able to lead in my community without having a title. I could gather leaders and followers and folks who were just there to do a thing together where everyone was valued and every voice could be heard.


Nsenga Knight’s studio

I lean into the abstractness of being an artist and what this can be. I put no limits on what can be included in my art. It’s what I like. It’s what I’m curious about. It’s who I am and what I admire. It’s what I’m thinking about. It’s what I want to remember or bring into focus.

Art can hold this. 

It’s not a medium specifically but it is a medium expansively. And it’s new mediums and modalities and it’s called in to necessitate me as the artist in my artmaking. 

This is why I say as artists we have to lead. We have to define art so that it remains undefinable by others.

Anyone who is willing to be more open and more curious and more searching for the truth and more generous and and and and… will help us be more and do more and create a better world guided by the truth.

So, if art can hold this because it is willing to grow and expand, I want to always be an Artist and make more art, and include more in my art and expand what art can be bi ithni Allah.      

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