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‘A space to do radical shit’: Black student artists form campus collective

<h6>Courtesy of Omar Farah</h6>
Courtesy of Omar Farah

Making art is one of the earliest memories for Omar Farah ’23. They were raised by a mother with a talent for painting and drawing, and their childhood home’s basement was an art studio. This early exposure to artistic practice quickly proved itself to be quite influential: Farah remembers filling their sketchbook with fashion designs and forcing their younger sisters to star in their feature-length home movies from an early age. For them, practicing and engaging with art was never a question.

Since entering college, Farah has often set a goal to uplift the voices of Black students at the University, including through their work as a student journalist. Seemingly bridging these two passions, Farah created a space for Black artists to be in community with one another and share their works with the larger University community. That space is now known as The Collective.

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Farah is a Managing Editor for The Daily Princetonian.

The Collective is a group of around 40 Black Princeton University students who engage with art through a variety of forms and mediums. They are dancers and filmmakers, painters and photographers, poets and sculptors. Many members study in the Program in Visual Arts (VIS), but they also concentrate in a variety of departments, including history, African American studies, neuroscience, and more. All come from varied class years, backgrounds, and experiences, but they unite under a shared goal of making a space for Black art on campus. 

Farah founded The Collective in the spring of 2022 after they curated “stitching,” an art exhibition that featured mixed media works from 13 Black artists on campus and was hosted in the Lewis Center for the Arts (LCA) CoLab space.

“After ‘stitching,’ my friend Collin [Riggins ’24] and I sent out an email to 15 people we knew. We were like, ‘Meet at our friend Raya [Ward ’22]’s apartment at 7 p.m. on this day,” Farah said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “I showed up. I honestly expected it to be all my best friends and maybe a few other people. When I went upstairs, [Raya’s] bedroom was packed. There were like 25 people in there.”

Riggins is a former opinion columnist for the ‘Prince.’

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At that meeting in Ward’s bedroom, the Black artists present introduced themselves to each other, discussed what they wanted to get out of the space, and launched a Discord server so they could keep in contact with each other over the summer. Ward was one of the artists featured in “stitching.”

Though many of the artists involved with “stitching” later joined The Collective, the group did not gather to formally present a body of work until the fall of 2022. In October, Farah curatedanticulation” — an exhibition that featured works from 11 members of The Collective and “[aimed] to capture the particularities of black, gay, and black gay archival practices.”

Like “stitching,” “anticulation” presented works from a host of different mediums, including short film, photography, sculpture, weaving, installation, and even dance. Azi Jones ’25, a member of The Collective who was one of the artists featured in “anticulation,” highlighted the positive impact the group has had on her practice.

“The space helped me create work that felt like it was mine,” Jones wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “The things I made there felt personal — implicating. This particular perspective that centers and values Blackness makes my work about me, but also bigger than me.”

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Suniya Nsehti ’24, a newer member of The Collective, was particularly fond of a collaboration between Riggins and Khari Franklin ’24 that resulted in a film featured in “anticulation.” In the film, Franklin’s dancing is inter-spliced with archival footage of Black militant figures.

“I love the fusion of film editing, and film in general, with dance,” Nsehti said, a competitive dancer since the age of 10. "I’m close with those two specifically, so it was very nice to see them produce such a beautiful product.”

Nsehti was first introduced to The Collective by friends who were already involved, including Riggins and Franklin. After going to see “anticulation,” she was inspired by all of the work The Collective members had put into their pieces, and she became interested in joining.

Nsehti shared that she initially felt hesitant to join and was unsure if she would belong, as her background lies in STEM and was not pursuing a VIS certificate. But her fears were quickly assuaged. “Omar really ensured that I felt welcome. It’s a very inclusive, very welcoming, and warm atmosphere,” Nsehti said.

“People don’t know this, but I’m not even a VIS certificate [student],” Farah said. “What I love about The Collective is its democratizing capacity to engage in the arts beyond the VIS program. I think that’s huge.”

Aishah Balogun ’23, a close friend of Farah’s and a founding member of The Collective, echoed their sentiments about The Collective providing a space for students to pursue art outside the confines of the Program in Visual Arts. Balogun shared that she believes the VIS program can be selective and demanding.

“Personally, I never even ended up applying to VIS because I didn’t think I had the material ready, and I decided a little too late that I was interested in art,” Balogun said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “So, I think now, [The Collective] is trying to share resources and do whatever we can to support each other in our practice and build off of each other.”

Balogun said that The Collective is actively looking to expand so that more Black artists on campus know that it is a space for them. Though Balogun acknowledges that the group was born out of a group of friends who wanted to hang out with each other and make art, she said she doesn’t want it to feel insular or uninviting. She shared a couple of events — including show-and-tells and open spaces for artists to present their work — that The Collective plans on hosting to increase engagement.

“We don’t want it to be a weird, exclusive thing,” Balogun said. “We want it to be a community of Black people who want to make art together and who are dedicated to that.”

Balogun also shared that she believes The Collective should remain independent from the University, a sentiment shared by Farah.

“We don’t want to become an official, undergrad group, because I think we want to give ourselves a space to do radical shit if we want,” Balogun said.

“I want it to maintain its integrity for a lot of reasons,” Farah said. “I think the biggest one is that it’s a social space at the end of the day. I don’t want it to become too structured or too within the realm of bureaucracy.”

When asked about their thoughts on the future of The Collective, Farah said they hope the community continues to grow and thrive even after they graduate in the spring. They are excited about the number of sophomore and first-year students that have joined and trust that it will continue to do great things long after they are gone from campus. 

Auhjanae McGee is a senior in the English department and a senior writer for The Prospect. McGee currently serves as co-director of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Board. McGee previously served as Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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