From a young age, Nydia Blas was able to understand the importance of representation. Speaking from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, the African-Panamian photographer recalls the vast archive of images that adorned her family’s walls as a girl: her ancestors — “all beautiful shades of brown” — graduating from college, enlisting in the army, playing musical instruments. “It said to me, ‘Black folks come from greatness. And here’s the proof of that.’”
Much of Blas’s adult life has been dedicated to instilling these same convictions in the minds of younger generations. In an arts landscape fraught with inequality — and a wider Western culture swift to challenge the self-pride of non-white girls — Blas refuses to be a monolith. Her ongoing and most recognised work, The Girls Who Spun Gold, is the culmination of the Girls Empowerment Group she founded for young women of colour in the predominantly white neighbourhood of Ithaca, New York. Blas now works in Atlanta as assistant professor of art and visual culture at Spelman College, a historically all black women’s school. “My students are all black women,” she muses. “I just don’t know if there’s any other space like that that exists in the world.”
Lauded for her “unflinching”, “courageous” and “powerful female perspective” by Peggy Sue Amison — who nominated the artist last year as one of British Journal of Photography’sOnes to Watch — Blas’ trajectory as a photographer has been unconventional at times. She started college as a single mother, aged 18; “somebody who was working while making art at my kitchen table, mixing chemicals where my kids were eating,” she says. “I feel like the first time I ever sat down in a college photo class, people were like, ‘who the heck is she?’”
Recalling white male professors who were uncomfortable with her work (specifically a series of lynching photographs in which bodies were covered in gold glitter), there were times when Blas would stop showing them her images. But she would never stop making them. “There were important things I had to say,” she remarks. “That’s what art is about. It’s this thing that you just have to do, regardless. Even if nobody’s looking at it. You’d still have to make it — you’d still have to say those things somehow.”
Blas weaves gold throughout her work as a reference to value: specifically one’s personal value versus the value placed upon an individual or group by society at large. Its use questions and assigns value where it has been denied, ignored, or assigned in negative ways. Crucially, Blas’ art speaks to the complex and conflicted process of learning to interpret one’s identity — and indeed one’s value — in relation to pre-existing structures.
“We don’t choose the bodies we’re born into,” she explains. “We don’t choose where we’re born, in what neighbourhood, who our parents are, our socioeconomic status. We’re just born into these bodies that already carry history, stereotypes and consequences, and then we have to navigate for ourselves who we are inside of them.” She thinks about this, she says, when she considers her upbringing in a largely white neighbourhood — and the implications of her recent move to the South.
In The Girls Who Spun Gold, props function as extensions of the girls’ bodies, costumes become markers of identity, and gestures reveal the performance and confrontation involved in learning to define oneself within preconceived constructs of gender and race. Blas’ subjects often straddle a blurred line between childhood and adulthood: her earliest project, When Time Stands Still, documents the intricate bond between her two nieces as they grow. Whatever You Like unfolds the ways that young women of colour learn to reclaim themselves for their own pleasure. To behold the latter project — the girls touching themselves, taking up space, observing their reflections — is to witness them unseeing themselves through the eyes of others. Unlearning their bodies as objects to please men.
“It’s such a confusing time,” Blas remarks, considering her own adolescence. “It’s full of contradictions. There’s this thin line when your body changes, and suddenly you have to wear a bra, you shouldn’t sit on a grown man’s lap, older women can be threatened by you. These are all things you have to learn outside of yourself.” Above anything, during these years, it was Blas’s relationships with other girls that propped her up — a dynamic dealt with inimitably in her art. “We live in a culture where we’re told that women don’t support women, or we’re always in competition with each other,” she says. “For attention from a man, or who’s prettier. But I’ve always had such strong relationships with other women.”
Indeed, Blas demonstrates an enchanting ability to capture the stirring intimacy of these relationships. Namely, she explores bonds between photographer and subject, or subject and subject, while the viewer is often consigned to the periphery. “It’s about the interior, and the individuals,” she says. “Like you don’t even matter as the viewer.”
In The Girls Who Spun Gold, one portrait shows a girl lying tautly on a bed of grass; her eyes are closed, negating the viewer, as two feet clamp tightly around her face. In Sometimes Your Edges are Rough and I Wrap You in Rainbows — another ongoing project — Blas’ husband holds her face as he spits into her mouth. “When my mom saw that photo,” Blas recounts, “she called me and she was crying, like, ‘I don’t understand. How is that powerful?’” But the image speaks to all we are willing to give and share as humans. “It’s just another notion of intimacy to me. Like the feet on the face,” she says. “And intimacy isn’t just a tightly-wrapped, beautiful process. It’s painful. It’s a struggle. It’s hard to trust people.”
For Blas, the line between photographer and subject is a delicate one. When asked by the girls (many of them now women) what all of it meant, Blas recalls telling them, “It’s about us. It’s about our story.” Put simply, Blas is who she shoots — it’s about her, it’s about them, it’s about every girl and woman of colour, past and present. To this end, she ensured The Girls Who Spun Gold was void of references to any specific period: no buildings, stores, cars or even shoes. “I wanted the project to be able to shift through time,” she says. “I was thinking about oppression, and the way that it shifts and gets repackaged, and becomes trickier in its operation.”
On the topic of time, Blas pauses to ponder the here and now. “We’re in this crazy time that’s about money,” she says. “It’s about profit. About people not knowing how powerful and magical and amazing they are as individuals. It’s about beating us down with these everyday things we have to do just to function and take care of ourselves — and so we never get to dream or have magic or do the things we love.”
Naturally, Blas will always make space for magic. She will always endeavour to create the conditions whereby women are attuned to their wonder. She will forever spin gold with girls.
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.