For some, the new year is a time of self-reflection, when people take stock of what they see in themselves as well as the world around them.
However, for Nydia Boyd, executive director of Southside Community Center, and Dr. Nia Nunn, president of the board of directors of Southside Community Center, this evaluation has been going on since the spring of 2018. That evaluation has resulted in shaking up the visual narrative of black women comes in the form of a mural for the exterior of Southside, its first public-facing mural at its central location, meant to celebrate and amplify local voices of women of color.
Aptly named the Mosaic Mural Project, Boyd and Nunn began working with young black girls in the community as well as local artist Annemarie Zwack to create a mural that would hang on the exterior of the Southside building. The funds for this come from a $270,000 grant ($90,000 over three years) from the NoVo Foundation in New York City, which has enabled them to do this as well as launch several programs, projects and events they feel have fostered sisterhood in the community and will continue to do so as they continue.
The over-arching initiatives that stem from the grant, as well as the theme for the mural and the girls who participate in these programs are being called “Black Girl Alchemists.” The initiative is described as girls and young women who use their voices through spoken word, writing, dance, and art to create and demand space for visibility. Nunn and Boyd speak to the idea of taking control over the narrative of black women and black girls.
“I think even that word, ‘alchemy,’ speaks to the theme of the mural,” Boyd said. “It speaks to the idea of taking control over your own magical process, too. In the same way, the girls were taking control over their own image and representation. When you think about the representation of black girls and black women, that was something that was not in our power. The first images of black women were not created by black women or black men. They were created by white men and they perpetuated racism and stereotypes.”
The mural is composed of several panels, each showing a different girl. Two of the panels were created by Nunn and Boyd, with some special identifiers on them like books or different uses of materials to make a certain point. Boyd, an artist herself, has found that a myriad of things are at play when it comes to creating a work of art.
She also talked about how the power to create one’s own image is something that can allow for a great deal of reflection on who black girls and black women are in society. Nunn also chimed in about how the ongoing activism of people of color, both in Ithaca and around the country, has sparked a movement for black people to tell their own stories instead of allowing someone else to control their visual representations.
“Connected to that too is the work that we’re doing and the work black women/black girls and black boys/black men are doing to contribute to this idea of black girl alchemy,” Nunn said. “It’s us working to disrupt the idea of gendered racism, and our process of interrupting this internalization is rooted in love for the self and love for our people. I think that’s important when you see this among a variety of folks engaged in activism. Thinking about Ithaca College, LACS [Lehman Alternative Community School]—just listening to these young women and women of color, but mostly black women, encouraging that self-love and collective self-pride has been transformative because it has been a lot of work.”
Real visual impact on the community is one of the main things Boyd hopes will result from the mural. Growing up as a non-white person in Ithaca can be a rough experience, she said, and she often found Southside was like a second home for her. She wants this mural to reflect that there are non-white people here who want to be visible, who want to be seen and recognized as well.
“I think one of the really important things about being at the center and being able to work with girls is that I and Dr. Nia were literally a girl navigating the spaces of Ithaca,” Boyd said. “So, navigating predominantly white spaces and figuring out how and where you feel included and I would say throughout childhood, here, one of the spaces where I did feel included was Southside. Where I could be around people who look like me, listen to music I want to listen to, have conversations about things—this was always like home.”
Boyd has emphasized art in her time as executive director, realizing its capability as a form of not only self-expression but self-reflection; seeing people reflected on the walls of Southside reminds her of seeing family pictures on the wall of her home growing up, both of relatives who are still alive and from past generations. As murals begin to populate the public-facing outside of Southside instead of only its inside, Boyd hopes that the visuals can call attention to the wealth of activity happening in Southside and by those who work there.
“I think there is something important in being able to see yourself reflected on the inside of this building, but it’s this other element that it’s on the outside of the building,” Boyd said. “I think in really recognizing that this neighborhood has become super gentrified, there are people in this neighborhood who have no idea what Southside is. I think there are people who walk by here and think we’re just this brick building, [and] there’s not too much going on outside. We have murals around the back of the building but you can’t really see them from the front, so I think of the mosaic piece as some indicator of the work that we do and who we are.”
Deciding on making the mural into a mosaic was chosen because it allows the girls to create their own sort of self-portrait since not everyone is able to draw, Boyd said, speaking from her own experience. According to Boyd, Zwack would sketch out the idea while she and the girls would do the physical work on the mosaics. All of the pieces in the mural have been crafted based on what the girls who created the mural see in themselves, an idea that also deeply appealed to Boyd.
“Having the power to shape the way that we are seen,” Boyd said. “She [a black girl] sort of puts herself in this position of power and of regalness. And some of the other girls are more detailed. There’s one that doesn’t have a lot of detail that’s really about shapes and it doesn’t have a lot of color and how that’s powerful, too.”
It is also based on the idea of the women being able to use their hands when creating the mural. Working with clay and other materials, Boyd said, can be somewhat therapeutic and allows a person’s feelings to manifest through a certain work.
“We came across Annemarie and she sort of had these skills,” Boyd said. “We saw what the work looked like and so we said yes. The other thing is that I’m an artist, but I can’t draw. I make photographs. I make collages. I think there’s something in being able to compose something that anybody can do [...] But I think that the mosaic is something that is accessible to more people because somebody who could draw like Annemarie was helping to sketch the thing out, but the girls were making the actual elements like hair and the texture of the hair and they were sculpting their own faces and noses. So, I think it was something tactile about working with clay, working with something with your hands, working out a frustration, working out a problem, having that actual touch and the feel of having something and working with your hands is super important and very different than just drawing.”
The creative team also placed a special focus on their core intent for the mural. Knowing that art is viewed and consumed through the contextual lens of each individual’s lived experiences, Boyd said they wanted to consider how they were presenting themselves to the world and what point they were all trying to make with the mural.
Despite the mural being on the exterior of the building, the weather won’t have a major impact on it. Since most of the materials are water-resistant items, whether it’s buffeted by rain or snow, the mural should be immune from damage. In the coming months, both Boyd and Nunn are hoping that the process to get the mural onto the building will be completed.
Since the building is owned by the City of Ithaca, Southside has been going through an elaborate process to get the mural placed on the building, which will continue in January at the Planning and Economic Development Committee. However, as Boyd pointed out, as the process advances, there are more and more hurdles to jump through. The girls who were involved with creating the mural are anxious for the mural to hang in its rightful place, Nunn said.
“These girls are waiting,” Nunn said. “They’re like, ‘We’ll do speeches and poetry performances in front of it and a music video.’ They’re ready and they’re eager. So, we have had to pull in some advocates to help with the movement. And sooner than later we’ll see progress and officially the final product on the space.”