Photographer Nydia Blas brings race, sexuality and motherhood together for an ongoing series exploring the complications of being a woman
There is a sense of exclusivity in The Girls Who Spun Gold, photographer Nydia Blas’ ongoing project which creatively documents her relationship with a group of young women she started mentoring in 2013. Usually private moments, like the first time you begin to explore your anatomy as a woman, or the intimacy you have with your closest friends, are laid bare in a photo series that is oddly alluring. The women featured in the staged portraits, all black, are sometimes pictured nearly naked, in strange poses – with blood dripping down their chin, for instance, or a shimmer of gold dust in front of their squinting eyes. Blas has also shot a few beautiful self-portraits for the series.
The most direct comparison I can make with Blas’ pictures are with those of Deana Lawson’s, another black American photographer who, like Blas, is also from New York state. Some of their pictures share a tantalising stillness, and an overt focus on the nude black body in a way that isn’t often done with such grace in contemporary photography. “I think I decided a long time ago to stop photographing white folks,” says 35-year-old Blas. “There’s enough images, there’s enough representation.” She herself acknowledges Lawson as an inspiration, alongside photographers and artists such as James Van Der Zee, John Edmonds, Cara Walker and the fearlessness and honesty of Sally Mann.
The main themes of Blas’ work seem quite clear from the images: motherhood, sisterhood, sexuality and magical realism. But, as I discover when we speak on a shaky Skype session from America, the relationship she’s managed to create with the girls she works with to make the pictures is something that takes longer to understand. It’s one that comes from more than just spending time with them. They share something just as special as what she has managed to capture on film: a real understanding of what it’s like to grow up as a young, black woman without very much money in a still-segregated part of America, and how important the bonds of female friendship can become.
Hi Nydia! Can you tell me how The Girls Who Spun Gold began?
Nydia Blas: I met the girls at a summer camp when they were all teenagers. I was working with smaller children and they were the camp counsellors. We really got along and they started to voice this need for a physical space where we could meet and talk about their lives. I considered it an in-between space that was neither home or school; with somebody that they trusted and respected but was an adult. That was found at the Southside Community Center in Ithaca, New York, where we were all from. It’s a really small town where Cornell University is. When I left the community centre for grad school I felt a little bit selfish, and I think my inclination to start photographing them was really a way to keep our relationship going and keep contact with them. As time went on it developed into something else. I started collecting props and considering the location, and the costume and also their gestures, or their actions. It evolved into what it is now.
And did you work together to create specific images?
Nydia Blas: A photograph would sort of just come to me. I would keep a journal, and write “Simone, with honey on her belly; in a fur coat”, and then I would piece together those pieces. “Has anyone got a fur coat I can borrow? Whose space can it be in?” It would evolve like that. From there, I have to work backwards to consider the meaning of what I was trying to get at, even though I was really inspired by the girls. What I got from them was this closeness, this sense of community, and some of them are actually family, so they’ve got those ties. There was also this idea that each girl was quite different in the way that she looked which worked well on camera. Light skin, or skinny and petite, dark skinned and thick (or big boned), natural hair, weave. The photographs were partially about celebrating that and the genuine sense that everyone was included for their uniqueness and what they gave to the group.
“In the work there’s this notion of complicating what it means to be a girl and that it’s not this one thing; it’s sticky and it’s messy and it’s joyous and all these other things.”
Were you able to connect with them because you came from a similar background, this small little town? Or did you ever feel like you had to discipline them and become more of a stern mum figure?
Nydia Blas: I tried that but it didn’t work (laughs)] – I would get into arguments with them and totally get on their nerves sometimes, but they are a force to be reckoned with and we had a mutual respect. There was definitely a connection between us. We were all girls of colour, in a small town, from low socio-economic backgrounds. Not feeling included in the larger community on the same streets that I ran when I was their age, the same places that I would convene at. Ithaca is considered to be really liberal, but in my eyes it’s still segregated. Brown and black folks don’t feel accepted in lots of spaces. It’s very progressive in terms of things like food justice but it can really erase and ignore issues concerning race and gender. My pictures reflect this space that’s supposed to be magical and freeing, our tagline (for the town) is “Ten Square Miles, Surrounded by Reality”, but where you still feel confined and trapped. Especially in the lives of people who have dealt with struggle, or women, or black folks, a magical outlook has always been necessary to deal with the harsh realities of life. I was a teen mother in Ithaca, and I never came from any money, but I wasn’t just going to sit there and be that, I dreamt of something bigger.
Speaking of teen motherhood, you’ve mentioned you had your first baby at 18. How did that influence the work? Did you have a dialogue with them about motherhood?
Nydia Blas: When I was young I was always looking for men to make me feel beautiful, or loved, or included because I didn’t feel it myself. So I made sure we had a lot of conversations about self-esteem and how you feel good, and how you appreciate other people. I’ve been taking care of someone since I literally was a baby – so I was always wanting the girls to dream big and go to school if that’s what they wanted. In the work there’s this notion of complicating what it means to be a girl and that it’s not this one thing; it’s sticky and it’s messy and it’s joyous and all these other things.
At the moment some of the girls are at college, others are away working. Some of them are teen mothers. Two of them have babies, one is pregnant. There’s one girl who has her child in the work. She goes from pregnant, to newborn, to then her baby in the air in one of the photos. She got pregnant when she was a senior in high school, so not long before the age I became pregnant myself. I remember people would speak to me like I was stupid, or I didn’t know what I was doing back then, but you know, circumstance is circumstance and you can’t make anyone feel bad for it; just help them to push forward. Regardless of what your life is like, think about what you want, think about how you can get there. For me that was starting school as a mother. I was moving forward with my own dreams, even though this thing had happened which was supposed to mean that my life was gone, that I was supposed to give all of myself to my child.
You’ve spoken about sexuality, but were you ever worried about the pictures of the girls being overly sexual? Was it something you discussed with them?
Nydia Blas: The only time that one of the girls said no to a photo was when I asked her to take her shoes off. She didn’t want to take her shoes off that day. I did consider that some of the images might be seen as sexualised, but as I do have such a close relationship with them it felt different. It wasn’t about photographing strangers; I wasn’t paying people to do things. It was about getting at this bigger thing, even if we all couldn’t put the words to the images straight away. I also like the ideas of the girls protecting each other. So even if there’s an image that’s sexualised, like the gold running down her legs, when I exhibit work I really consider where I place the images, and it could be paired with an image of a girl with a baseball bat or something. So I did think about sexuality and how I was portraying them a lot, but the girls’ weren’t uncomfortable, and I like the idea that my work starts discussions. It’s not meant to answer questions but it’s meant to create them. If that’s a conversation that we can have then I like that. It’s like that film Moonlight, have you seen it?
No, but I really want to!
Nydia Blas: You’ve got to see it. There’s this one scene in it where these two young black boys are wrestling and the way that it’s shot is in a sexualised manner. It’s slow, they’re sweaty, and I think it was just interesting because it brought up questions for me about why we sexualise particular things. If it’s not sexual, where are we going with that, and if it is sexual, and this wrestling maybe could be considered homoerotic, why is that?. Certain things get read differently depending on who you are and what you’re bringing to the image. The image, for instance, of the girl looking at her vagina in the mirror; I had a black male photographer and writer look at... He just thought the image was super-sexualised. Like, the mirror is in her vagina, and if we’re placing ourselves in the mirror then it’s our face that’s in her vagina. I was just like “oh my gosh”, because as girls when we encounter that image we find it empowering, right?
“As girls we are not taught to explore our bodies in the same ways that boys do, as a rite of passage and to masturbate.”
Yeah, I particularly liked that image of the girl looking at her vagina in a hand mirror – such a simple, uninhibited thing that all women have done at some stage.
Nydia Blas: As girls, we are not taught to explore our bodies in the same ways that boys do, as a rite of passage and to masturbate. Before the internet, you were given a magazine, or you would find someone, but girls learn that our bodies are about other people’s pleasure, and not about our own.
I’m sorry to ask you about this… But Trump?
Nydia Blas: Oh jeez. I totally believed it was going to happen. In a sense, there was something refreshing about because I knew then, like, this whole time I haven’t been crazy. Racism exists and people really think this and feel this, and want to invest in this thinking. Like, thank you, I was right. But then there’s this other part of me that’s like so devastated. I try not to get too involved in politics and I didn’t watch any of the debates or anything, but I couldn’t believe I had to wake up in the morning and tell my kids. My daughter’s 11 and she was bawling. She said, “He’s going to send us away somewhere”, and I felt like, “Does my work mean anything? What have I been doing? If my work is not valued by people in my country, what am I working towards?”
I think that lasted for about a day, and then I was like, “oh, fuck this.” I stepped out into the world and figured it was even a more of a reason to be unapologetically myself, make this work and speak back to my experience.
See more of Blas’ work here