“Find Your Purpose” - A Public Art Installation Honoring Nia Wilson

Oakland and communities across the nation have been devastated by the onslaught of violence directed at the Black community and toward Black youth in particular. The murder of Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station was the latest in this string of violence. Once Nia was killed, rallies and vigils spread throughout Oakland, making these injustices visible. Organizers demanded action from the city, BART, and the police department. Several memorials, protests and actions have happened since Nia’s murder and these actions will continue. These actions are testament to Oakland’s spirit of resistance.

Alena Museum is among those pushing for protection of Black youth and sacred Black spaces. Alena Museum is committed to carving out spaces where art is used as a medium to support healing and begin conversations that ask us to view tragedies through the lens of how we can address systemic racism. Alena staff and volunteers organized a healing space and art exhibit entitled “Find Your Purpose” to honor Nia during August’s “First Fridays.”

Nia’s name means “purpose” in Swahili and “intention” in Arabic. The installation gave the community a chance to honor her life and to internally examine their own intent and purpose. Folks were encouraged to share a purpose or intention at the altar. They were to write on paper and put that intention up using one of the clothespins as a way of honoring Nia’s life by meditating on purpose and sharing it within a safe space. Several people shared their intentions and commitments with one another with tears in their eyes.

The installation was a combination of art, sage, music and grief. The installation had a large image of Nia as a centerpiece that read “Rest in Power Nia Wilson,” with an elaborate floral arrangement underneath donated by a local florist. To the right was a 3D cutout of Nia’s name which translates to “intent.” In the Muslim culture, one is judged by the intent of their action in anything that they do which has a direct connection to the Swahili translation “purpose.” To the left was a collage of many images of Nia. One sign read, “Criminalization of Black Lives is Systemic Racism.” After Nia’s murder, KTVU shared a photo of her with what appeared to be a gun in her hand, but it was actually a gun shaped phone case. The collage was in protest of KTVU’s inappropriate use of an image of Nia reportedly holding a gun during their coverage of her murder.

An Afrofuturist installation was set up in conjunction to the Nia tribute. Afrofuturism in the abstract and material, encourages its audience to connect Black life, liberation and futures in a way that centers imagination, creativity and communication. It connects Black life and death by asking, “Where do Black people belong in the future?”and simultaneously answering “We have, and will always belong, shape and sustain it.” Community, commitment and reflection are the core of Afrofuturist thought and expression.

Though the term was coined in the early 90s, Black folks have been Afrofuturists since the beginning of time. We re-visit, re-connect and re-member our practices, ancestors and loved ones beyond space and time. When we hold these spaces dear, we honor our history. Undoubtedly, Nia was in that space witnessing those who paid tribute to her life and her death. While we gathered, stories of frustration, loss, hope and peace were shared. We danced, sang and cried. We let all the creativity, grief and imagination transform the sacred space.

This story is not new and it is devastating. Black people deserve protection. Black people deserve life. Black people deserve safety. When our lives are threatened, what spaces will be left to remind us of our worth?

Alena will continue to fight against systemic racism and the displacement of the Black Diaspora. We encourage all of you to find your Nia, your purpose, and let that anchor you on your journey.