Ones to Watch 2019: Nydia Blas

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Nydia Blas, nominated by Peggy Sue Amison, artistic director of the East Wing in Doha, pushes the boundaries around how black women are perceived

Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate made by our global network of experts. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine.

The world of Nydia Blas is one imbued with a belief in magic. Not the trickery kind performed by an illusionist, but rather the many subtle yet vital manifestations of love and beauty that enable hope. “In order to make it through hard times, or to face a struggle, you need to have some sort of magical outlook,” says the African-American artist. “Otherwise the circumstances weigh you down.”

Accordingly, her photographic work – which Peggy Sue Amison, artistic director of the East Wing in Doha, describes as “un flinching”, “courageous” and a “powerful female perspective on sexuality, intimacy and her own lived experience as a girl, woman and mother” – is concerned not only with recording moments of enchantment, but also, and more importantly, with creating the conditions for those to arise.

In 2011, she formed a female empowerment group at the Southside Community Centre, a historically black community centre in her home town of Ithaca, New York. Bonds between her and the young women grew, and after she began an MFA at Syracuse University, a photographic project emerged, which she titled The Girls who Spun Gold.

© Nydia Blas
© Nydia Blas
© Nydia Blas

“I’d get these visions – for example, Simone, pregnant, wearing a fur coat, with honey covering her belly. Even if I didn’t fully understand what they meant, I learned to trust my intuition and nd ways to make them come to life,” she recalls. “To some extent, the process feels magical – the image just appears in my mind – but at the same time, it isn’t coming out of thin air, it is a combination of what I was observing, reading, hearing and thinking.”

Blas is particularly attuned to the way the black woman is perceived, defined, constrained and valued by prevailing social structures and narratives, and wants to push those boundaries. With this series, she endeavoured to make “photos that are about girls dealing with their sexuality and coming to terms with it without making images that are sexual.”

The young women personify characters on a journey of self- discovery and kinship. They are regal and nurturing, strong and inquisitive, autonomous yet connected. “Her storytelling around the lives of black women and girls is fantastical and Afrofuturistic, and begs us to consider notions outside of the status quo,” claims Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, who included Blas in her anthology, Mfon: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora. “I love that she celebrates the singularity of girls when society and media encourage them to t a mould. For women and girls, Nydia encourages a reclamation of the body and champions pride and pleasure.”

Indeed, Blas points out the radical potential of the medium: “Photography can lead to the creation of a new world, because we can make images that show another type of world.” She dreams of one “where people are free. Where they get to live full lives. Where they can have access to healthy food, education, clean water, housing.” Until then, our responsibility, she maintains, is to continue to make spaces in our lives, community and work for love and wonder.

This article was originally published in issue #7884 of the British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch is a photographer, writer, PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University, and Graduate Research Associate at the Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology. Her research unsettles mainstream representation of environmental contamination in Canada through participatory visual discourse analysis and collaborative photographic approaches.