Nzingah Muhammad grew up in a Muslim family, guided by the foundation and traditions of her religion. However, as she developed as an artist she began to question how her faith affected her personally. This simultaneous act of embracing and questioning one's faith is perhaps the greatest dilemma and test of faith itself. The contradictions of comfort and conflict, temptation and redemption are, in one way or another, the very struggles that believers are confronted with, and that non-believers often see as inherent faults in any faith-based practice.
In the United States there is supposedly a clear distinction between church and state, but in reality we pledge allegiance to Him (or Her) and the phrase "In God We Trust" is stamped on our money. Faith and religion form strong bonds that have united and divided people throughout the history of the world; this practice will quite possibly continue forever.
Muhammad believes in her faith, but as an artist she also believes in asking questions. During her residency at Light Work, she looked at how photography, as a vehicle of truth and a medium of evidence, could be used to extend the questions she had in her own life regarding the comfort and conflicts of her beliefs.
Part of her residency was spent printing work from previous projects that included examining the stereotypes that are assigned to Muslim women and the traditional dress code within the religion. In the image titled Locker Room Liberation Muhammad describes the elegance of traditional Muslim dress, and at the same time playfully suggests the difficulty of adhering to such strict codes.
During her residency she also began work on a new project. To begin, Muhammad took several strands of prayer beads and decided to hit the streets of Syracuse. Recruiting random strangers to assist with her project, she asked that they pretend the beads had been lost and to imagine what their rightful owners might look like. Participants jotted down these descriptions on police-style evidence cards that included the time, date, and place the beads were "found," along with the name of who found them, and space for further comments. Muhammad then made contact with a local mosque in Syracuse and asked several members to sit for a portrait while holding the same prayer beads she had asked strangers on the street to identify.
In finishing the project, Muhammad paired the portraits with forensic-style photographs of the beads with the descriptive evidence tags attached. By pairing the portraits with the evidence photographs of the prayer beads Muhammad opens up ideas about examination and suspicion that often grow out of stereotypes and assumptions.
When an artist asks questions, these reflections often take on a greater significance than initially intended. Muhammad is a young artist exploring very personal questions about her religious faith. She was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Gambia in West Africa photographing people who embrace the "gris-gris" tradition, a sub-culture who embrace Islamic ideals, but who also believe in talismans and good luck charms in deference to traditional Islamic beliefs.
Islam came to West Africa in the fifth century. Like many religions it can be embraced by different people in different ways. Muhammad is interested in exploring her faith at the intersection where reverence and interpretation meet. Conflict and comfort seem to be the talisman that she has found within her faith and work that continues to grow and evolve along with that understanding and recognition.
Nzingah Muhammad lives in Brooklyn, NY and participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program from June 1-30, 2003
In organizing the exhibition "Un/Common Threads: Selections from the Light Work Collection," curator Kaylen Williams went beyond a superficial perception of diversity that has become pervasive in the United States. As a 2007 study by the sociology department at University of Minnesota revealed, many Americans happily endorse diversity as a nebulous concept; however, many are still at a loss to discuss the specifics of diversity and its related sub-topics, such as gender, race, ethnicity, economic status, and sexual orientation. (1) "Un/Common Threads" harnessed the power of photographs, using a visual language to voice these all-important specifics of diversity. Williams used the visual language that coalesced among the various images to stimulate dialogue about the complex challenges of a pluralist culture in ways that addressed both broad and personal implications.
Exhibiting together the work of artists such as Myra Greene, Dawoud Bey, Clarissa Sligh, Yuri Marder, Hank Willis Thomas, and Binh Danh, among others, certainly highlighted the individuality of their concerns and aesthetic choices. Yet this varied grouping also served a common goal by giving voice to specific, possibly contentious topics surrounding diversity. To emphasize this unity of purpose, Williams combined the “Un/” in the exhibition title with “Common Threads,” acknowledging the connections that can occur between diverse artists and the viewers of their work.
Many of the photographs in "Un/Common Threads" manage to evoke the idea of connections and also simultaneously turn it on its head by asking viewers to re-examine preconceptions that they may bring with them into the gallery. Ellen M. Blalock’s photograph, "Jermane," a portrait of a black teenage father pictured full-frame in an intimate embrace with his baby daughter, may provide a good example of this phenomenon. Those who find themselves jarred by the tender presence of emotion displayed by the young African American father must question and explore the sources of any biases regarding age, race, and gender. This is the inherent power of such photographs—when a viewer accepts involvement in questioning such preconceived connections, he or she is more inclined to get involved in talk of answers that can lead to a deeper understanding of identity and diversity.
Many of the artists whose work curator Kaylen Williams, a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, selected for "Un/Common Threads" engaged the topic of diversity from a personal perspective. Regarding her impetus for organizing the exhibition, Williams explains, “This project was of particular interest to me because of my own ethnic background of Japanese and Western European ancestors. Many students on campus are, like me, a mix of diverse cultural backgrounds. My Japanese mother was adopted by Americans and never had an opportunity or the encouragement to explore her racial identity.” In culling this selection of images from the Light Work Collection, Williams invited viewers of Un/Common Threads to explore the diversity of identity and to participate in the critical mass that follows an expansion of consciousness.
Laura A. Guth (c)2008
1. Joyce M. Bell and Douglas Hartmann, “Diversity in Everyday Discourse: The Cultural Ambiguities and Consequences of ‘Happy Talk.’” American Sociological Association: American Sociological Review 72, no. 6 (December 2007): 895–914.
The exhibition was on view in the Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery from January 16 to April 19, 2007. It was curated by Kaylen Williams. The exhibition included work by the following artists: Don Gregorio Antón, Dawoud Bey, Ellen M. Blalock, Binh Dahn, Sylvia de Swaan, Lonnie Graham, Myra Greene, Saiman Li, Yuri Marder, Nzingah Muhammad, Osamu James Nakagawa, Suzanne Opton, Kanako Sasaki, Clarissa Sligh, Tone Stockenström, Lida Suchý, Hank Willis Thomas, Linn Underhill, and Carrie Mae Weems.
When she curated the exhibition, Kaylen Williams was a graduate student of Museum Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University. She graduated in 2007.
Laura A. Guth is an artist and educator. She lives in Manlius, NY.