The Art of Living Black: An Interview with Nyé Lyn Tho
Nye’ Lyn Tho is a West Oakland resident of 9 years, hailing from Philadelphia, PA. She was born and raised in New York with her 10 siblings and currently resides with her partner, Ahmunet Jessica Jordon. She currently runs a Photography & Graphic Design studio operating out of American Steel Studios with a focus on portraits, commercial/ad work and branding.
What do you find most inspiring about photography? Tell us about your current projects.
I’m in love with the psychological and soulful vulnerabilities of Photography. The moments that one can’t usually pick up on because they happen so fast. I can shoot a room of people and literally read the room when I review the shot. For instance, I can tell this one individual is in love with the woman he is talking to by how lost he is in her eyes. How his body is leaning toward her with his chest, his heart, reaching for her. While on the completely opposite side of the room some lady is dying to get out of a conversation. In one photo I discovered that a groom in a wedding I shot had a deep dislike for his father. Something he confirmed months later. So many things can be read in body language, facial expressions, and general energy that aren’t readily available in real-time observations because they can happen in an instant.
Even with studio portraits there is a certain psychological playful manipulation. I love digging for the genuine moments. For instance if a woman’s face lights up when she starts talking about her son, I may dig for her to tell me something funny he did. One of my favorite shots of this guy came from me poking fun at his adoration of his girlfriend as he had mentioned her 3 times in the span of 5 minutes. He did a sheepish shift in stance with a huge grin on his face while briefly looking away from the camera. I love the dance between myself, the camera, and the subject. The moments where I capture someone’s true self, the un-guarded self, their soul. It really makes me understand why people of certain cultures do not want their photo taken. It truly is the capturing of one’s soul. Having someone be spiritually nude for me is an honor and I take the way I handle it very seriously.
How did you become involved with The Art of Living Black? How does your work represent and uphold the tradition of this exhibition?
One of my mentors, Stephen Bruce, introduced me to The Art of Living Black. Before this my art was limited to the Graphic Design/Commercial Photography world so it was a very new and intimidating world that I harassed him with way too many questions about. He basically told me to quit bugging out and make something…anything…and just put it on the wall. Haha!
Natural Heir is very much the art of living black, as it is a visual pun of the state of having natural hair within the black community. It relates to natural hair and the political ties that the black community has in regards to embracing it. There is a lot of controversy in regards to embracing our coils, “kinks,” and rough texture. When we do, it is often considered unprofessional in the workplace, people think reaching in to touch it is okay, it is considered unkempt. We are expected to straighten it to fit European standards of beauty. I named one piece Melba Tolliver, for a woman who worked for ABC and refused to cover up her afro in order to look more “professional” to cover the White House wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter.
So far, I have photographed 12 subjects, studied their personality, observed their crowns, and matched them to relating plant life that historically represent African and African American culture. For instance, I replaced one subject’s hair with cotton, another with collard greens, one figure has a head of sage while another, a calla lilly.
What was your path to becoming an artist? Please share some of your favorite work.
My mother used to draw these portraits in pencil and it always looked like magic the way she took a blank sheet of paper and sketched family members faces onto it. She may as well have pulled a quarter out of thin air. Anyway, I tried to draw like her and became really obsessive about nailing it. Then I got into construction because I wanted to be a “builder” and then someone convinced me to combine the two so I went to college for Architecture and after interning at an Architectural firm and realizing that’s not what I wanted to do at all, I discovered Graphic Design. I moved to California, went to the Academy of Art for as long as I could afford it, and then obtained my first Graphic Design job where I stayed for 7 years living in Photoshop and Illustrator while teaching myself Photography. I wanted to do it all. I still do. Except now I do it all at once. Natural Heir is a combination of all of the artistic skill sets that I’ve been obsessing with for the past 7 years.
Who are your inspirations?
I’m inspired by doers. Folks who do whatever drives them all day everyday. Folks who do it so often that they have mastered whatever it is that their doing. Folks who bare their entire soul within their creation. I’m also intrigued by folks who have discovered a non-conventional way of creating. Artists who create otherworldly art, fantasies, magic, the surreal. I love artists who can tell a million stories with one single image, song, scene. Gordon Parks, Ava Duvernay, Annie Liebovitz, Kara Walker, Solange, Frida, Shepard Fairey, Whitney Houston, Tim Burton, Shonda Rhimes, Michael Jackson, Justin Bua, Basquiat, Rodrigo Coral, Rog Walker, Bryant Terry, Stephen Bruce, Syd the Kid.
What do you like to do when you’re not taking pictures?
I like eating. Haha! Really, just sitting with my partner, off and on staring at her, while watching an epic move with great cinematography and stuffing my face. I’m a Taurus. I also like getting to know people…not what people are telling my about themselves but by observing them, reading their body, listening to not what they say but how they say it…what my subconscious tells me about them. Usually this happens one on one and not very often as I really like spending time alone. I’m a Scorpio Moon.
What’s on your bucket list?
- Live in the woods near water.
- Own a home/property.
- Raise a family.
- Marry my partner.
- Capturing (or maybe just witness) the Northern Lights.
- To eat at a restaurant that has a top chef (like in the worlds top 10).
- To capture Barack and Michelle Obama.
- Movie Cinematography.
- Grow my own food.
- Master an instrument (drums, violin, or bass).
If you could meet one artist, living or not, who would it be and why?
Man! I had an older cousin, Dee Dee, who died in a car accident when I was a kid. She was magical and whenever she would visit she would show me all of these things she created….clothing, jewelry, things that lit up, sketches. I was a shy kid so I would just become dumbfounded sit back and observe her, thinking “she feels just like me!”. I never felt so close to someone but her spirit felt so similar to mine. I never really talked to her. I would love to talk to her and look at all of the things that came out of her mind and ask her questions about them. She was brilliant.
Thank you for your time, Nyé Lyn.
To see Nyé Lyn’s work, and the work of the other artists on exhibition for The Art of Living Black, please visit our galleries starting Tuesday, January 10. The exhibition, along with our other Winter shows, continues through March 4, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Our galleries are always free to the public. Please visit our Exhibition Events for links to events associated with our galleries, including receptions and artists talks.
For more information about Nyé Lyn’s work: