by Nzinga Muhammad
A few weeks ago, I had the honor and privilege of working with two other girls in painting a mural that became the talk of our city, Rochester, New York.
Myself, Kaori-Mei Stephens and Etana Browne are all part of a teen mural program called Roc Paint Division. In it, we are employed by the city to beautify recreation centers, or “R-Centers”. We have not had experience with murals before this program, and this is only my second year painting. Long story short, the three of us were picked to represent Roc Paint Division in a project called Wall Therapy.
Wall Therapy was started in 2010 to transform and beautify our communities. Every year, artists from all over the world come to Rochester for a week to paint on various buildings to paint. This year the organizers of Wall Therapy, Dr. Ian Wright and Erich Lehman, asked us to do a wall under the theme: Arts and Activism.
With all that is going on in the world, especially the predicaments that America is undergoing, we gladly accepted the challenge to share our voices. We decided our aspect of activism to focus on would be “Black Lives Matter”, that also showed diversity and unity.
The three of us are young, black girls living in this small city but each one of our blackness is unique. Kaori-Mei is Afro-Asian, Etana is Afro-Caribbean, and I’m a Black Muslim. Regardless of what we are mixed with, what our cultural background or what our religion is, the bottom line is that we are able to come together under the common principle that our lives do in fact matter.
We came up with a sketch, and decided that we would paint portraits that represent each of us. This would later be a revolutionary choice because in Rochester, it is extremely rare for a Black Muslim girl to be on a mural.
I thought about the importance of positive representation for our people in a world where black people are constantly dehumanized, hypersexualized, and criminalized in the media. I thought about all of the portraits of black people that Roc Paint Division had done in the past, and how black children who go to these R-Centers would beam at artwork that looks like them.
I also thought about the three strikes against my identity: Being black, Muslim, and female; and how people like Nabra Hassanen are being killed for simply existing. It would be a bold statement to put that “triple threat” on a wall for our city and the world to marvel at as beautiful.
Since our subject of activism was mainly Black Lives Matter, we felt the need to add quotes in signs of protest. I looked up some phrases and hashtags that i felt were fitting. We chose:
“Respect Existence or Expect Resistance
#Black Diversity ”
“Silence is Betrayal”
And the iconic statement that I said we MUST add (smile) :
“Justice Or Else #BlackLivesMatter”
The mural took us a week to finish completely. Despite our challenges we faced: whether it was blending the skin tone colors evenly, or getting on top of the scaffolding with fears of falling, we were encouraged and praised by members of the community. One black woman yelled to us: “Yes! Black girl magic!!” Another woman was even moved to tears as she saw what we were doing.
One group of students, who were part of an organization Refugees Helping Refugees , was taking a tour and came to the wall on day. A couple of Somali girls in their hijabs were so excited to see a Muslim being painted. In fact, many of our Somali brothers and sisters came by the wall to look at our work. For black Muslims, we are so used to seeing light skinned, middle eastern Muslims being portrayed that we don’t see our blackness enough as we should. The Ummah is not one shade of beige.
We became not just the only all black, female group participating this year, but also the youngest to ever paint in Wall Therapy.
I thank Allah that I was able to be part of this experience of making history and positive change in my community.