Kameelah Janan Rasheed | Mapping the Spirit

Country of origin: United States
Project location: United States
Program: Photography in Collaboration
Collaborator: Corey Tegeler
Year: 2016

Five years ago, I found a burgundy binder on my father’s cluttered bookcase. Inside was his archive of religious notes composed of typewritten text, collaged photocopies, and handwritten marginal notes on the back of the his pharmacy school handout listing dosage limits. My dad’s notes were written in the immaculate print that came to characterize the precision of his thought process at the beginning of his conversion. He showed an interest in how to enjoy prayer (which was still evident later in the way he steadfastly met his prayer times even while in chemotherapy and while on bed rest following surgery). His notes also revealed how important it was to him to draw knowledge from the Qu’ran, hadith, and secondary sources. He literally collaged these pieces together to create a narrative, a syllabus of sorts to lead him throughthe early years of his practice.

My father’s binders of notes and our intermittent interviews piqued my interest in the religious lives of other Black people in the United States. Surely, my father was not the only Black person who transitioned in and out of communities. And surely, many of pre-1950s historical texts I’d read about Black religious life in America could not be right in assuming that most all Black people practice some form of Christianity with a spattering of the community absorbed in what was popularly called “cult” religions, otherwise known as practices other than Christianity. I decided to take this interest further, and, five years ago, I formally started Mapping the Spirit as a way to learn more about Black religious life. In its early iterations, this project was a series of interviews with my father, a sampling of photographs, and a few videos.

In 2015, I was able to expand the project when I was awarded a joint commission from New York Public Library Labs and Triple Canopy to do archival research on early 20th century Black religious communities. I chose to focus on the Moorish Science Temple of America because I’d learned about them from a teacher at my masjid when I was fifteen and a friend of mine had joined the community in 2010. Most of my research including piecing together photocopied fragments of an archive at the Schomburg Center for Research. What emerged from this work was a question around what the archive (and an archive in general) does and does not hold, what it reveals and what it conceals, and what it has the potential to illuminate. I was left wanting to know more about why people joined the Moorish Science Temple of America and why some people left. When I was awarded the Magnum Foundation grant in 2016, I decided to continue building from the archival work I was doing through this joint commission to create a new archive, one that presented the texture of everyday life amongst members of the Moorish Science Temple of America and other communities, one that could accommodate synchronic and diachronic assemblages of archives that live in binders as well as institutional archives whose interiorities are at times made through discovery and chance.