Nydia Blas is an artist and community leader whose pictures capture a striking and deeply intimate perspective of black female adolescence. As executive director of the Southside Community Center in Ithaca, New York, Blas works closely with teenage girls to help establish a safe space where they are celebrated and empowered to thrive within a predominantly white environment.
Her series The Girls Who Spun Gold is both a collaboration and an ode to the young women she works with. Each picture explicitly confronts the stereotypes perpetuated by decades of racist propaganda in an effort to reclaim identity, and, like the Southside Community Center, create a safe space in which young black women can see themselves. Here, Blas speaks with BuzzFeed News about her work and the powerful meaning behind the pictures.
These images are a direct reflection of my lived experience as a woman of African descent and work to complicate the notion of what it means to be a girl, adolescent, woman, and mother — and the fine lines that exist between.
To be even more specific, the experiences of a woman of African descent growing up in the predominantly white city of Ithaca, New York. This is a result of a relationship that developed between myself and a group of girls who were in the midst of growing up in the exact same location. I think this is an integral part of the work, and it was important for me to make this work in Ithaca.
This series began in 2012, when I was in my first year of graduate school at Syracuse University. I had decided to return to school to pursue my art career but ultimately felt guilty for leaving the group of girls that I was working with each day at the Southside Community Center in Ithaca. Honestly, I felt selfish.
The Girls Who Spun Gold emerged as a way to spend time with the girls while simultaneously making work as I commuted back and forth from Ithaca to Syracuse as a single mother in school full time, teaching, and running a darkroom part time. The time that I spent with the girls, together with all I was learning, reading, experiencing, watching, and looking at, led to the creation of these images.
Black feminine lens is a term I often use as it relates to who I am, the very body that I was born into. I am of African descent. I am a woman. And I specifically chose to center these aspects of my identity because they have shaped my lived experience. I look at the world through a Black feminine lens.
As human beings, we are born into bodies that we did not choose. These bodies inherently carry histories and stereotypes that affect the way we are received, and thus treated in the world. We are constantly coming to understand ourselves through the eyes of others.
I always think about early images of black folks in America. Mammy and pappy salt and pepper shakers, black children eating watermelon, Aunt Jemima, etc. These depictions were made by white folks and perpetuate damaging stereotypes — that black people are in service to white people, that they are happy in slavery, in servitude. There is so much power in a image and for the person/people making that image.
Black girls and women need to make images of themselves. Images that speak to the complicatedness of our experiences. Not only do we need to see ourselves represented in the world, we must be the ones making these images.
Upon graduation, I decided the only place I could work in Ithaca was at the Southside Community Center, which is the only historical space for black people in Ithaca. I began a Girl Empowerment Group there after meeting a group of girls who voiced a need for a space to be black girls; a space to talk about their lives at school and home. The fact that I was an adult, but not one of their parents, helped us create a relationship based on mutual respect, care, and an exchange of knowledge in an intimate setting.
We read books that pertained to their lives and experiences, we deconstructed rap videos, we kept journals, and they danced and performed at local events. We threw chaperoned parties for bored teenagers in the community, traveled to Harlem to visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and attended the Kwanzaa celebration at the Apollo Theater. Most important, we had deep conversations about self-esteem, relationships, our dreams and aspirations. Eventually our bonds were reproduced visually in the photographs that we worked to make together.
My advice for young photographers is to lead with the excitement to make first before weighing yourself down with what it means. As we move farther along in an art practice, there is more pressure for artists to know exactly what they are doing and be able to share that confidently and coherently. I say make the images first and investigate what they mean later. I am a big believer in research.
I made these images before I considered what they would actually do in the world; how they would function. I didn't consider that so many people would feel connected to these images and see themselves reflected.
For example, I also didn't expect them to be controversial at times. "Resana with Mirror" felt like a natural image to make — a teenage girl looking at her vagina. But culturally we learn something else. As girls, we learn that our bodies are about pleasing other people — boys and men. Boys learn to explore their bodies as a rite of passage. Girls are not taught to explore their bodies, to discover what their bodies look like, how they function, what feels good, etc. We learn to find meaning for ourselves, outside of ourselves.
I hope that people will talk about these images. I hope they they begin conversations. I believe that the most powerful images make you want to look longer, they make you feel something; they nag you.