Nitashia Johnson longs to capture the light and beauty of melanated communities. The multimedia artist and educator recently released “The Self Publication,” a photographic book series that dispels stereotypes about Black communities. She expanded on this crucial work in “The Beauty of South Dallas,” a project that documents “the changes in the South Dallas community due to socio-economic shifts.”
Her work was among the first to be released from the inaugural cohort of Black artists from the South Dallas Cultural Center. In a chat with D, Johnson reflects on her time with the Juanita J. Craft House Artist Residency, “The Beauty of South Dallas” project, and her plans for the future.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your experience as the 2020 Inaugural Juanita J. Craft Artist Residency Recipient at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Prior to the residency, I didn’t know about Ms. Juanita J. Craft and her work in South Dallas. I feel everyone should know about her. The residency was great because the folks at the cultural center are very supportive. If it wasn’t for manager John Spriggins and great women like Karla Barthelmy and Imani Chet Lytle, I don’t think I would have continued to step into my creative side.
How did your perspective of South Dallas change by documenting it as a photographer?
If the people who raised you are not informed about the truth or the truth has been hidden from them, it will be hidden from you. I felt like I had goggles over my eyes in a way where I did not understand how deep and traumatic things were in the world for so many people. I have lived in the projects in East and West Dallas, and went to school in South Dallas. I was not informed about terms like “gentrification,” “trauma,” or redlining. My move to Rhode Island was extremely significant because I started to dive into Black history and melanated history across the globe.
What resources did you have in Rhode Island to dive into Black history?
I helped out with Healthy Roots, a natural hair toy company. The girls I worked with were already in tune with their natural hair and history, so that helped me. Sometimes you get a little bit of information, which encourages you to dig a lot deeper. That’s what happened. I went back to my community with history and knowledge of self. I learned how to be understanding and mindful of people, not just snapping their photos. I want the world to truly understand the South and West Dallas communities because they matter.
Can you tell me about The Beauty of South Dallas project? Why did you decide to focus on South Dallas?
It’s changing. When development happens to an area, it should enhance the lives of the people who built the community. Once they are gone, it doesn’t feel the same. New structures are beneficial if they serve the current residents because they deserve it. To bring it back to the cultural center, my requirement was to document, but I always felt spaces are what they are because of the voices of the people. The history of the people is beautiful, because it shows what they have been through. I can’t stop things from happening in the world, but I can help tell the story. I can at least do that.
Why do you think it’s important to create a series that specifically showcases the beauty of Black people?
I think it’s important because we have little people behind us. The little ones, they need to see that stuff. I needed to see that stuff growing up. Any community that is facing severe changes must see how amazing they are.
What did “The Beauty of South Dallas” teach you?
It’s taught me about the light inside all of us. We all have it, but sometimes it gets buried because of what is going on in the world. Creative projects help me pull out the light inside of people. It’s helped me understand the need to research and to keep going. Creating is beautiful. Whether you are a writer, dancer, or someone who hums to themselves in nature, it’s beautiful. Creating is my source of happiness.
What projects are you looking forward to doing in the future?
My next project will deal with the combination of nature and the essence of melanated bodies. It’s going to consist of film photography mixed with video and digital photography. It’s going to deal with climate change and systemic oppression. It will be an indication of why it’s important to engage with nature.
Click here to see images from The Beauty of South Dallas project.