Twice a week, young black and brown girls meet at Riverbank State Park in Harlem to participate in an after-school enrichment program entitled Figure Skating in Harlem. Photographer Flo Ngala was, at one point, one of these young girls when her parents enrolled her in the scheme at the age of six. So, for a recent cover story in The New York Times, Flo returned to the ice skating rink to celebrate and honour Figure Skating in Harlem and the talented young girls who partake in it.
“Figure skating was my first love, and having access to the sport through this program changed my life,” Flo says. “Returning years later after once being in the shoes, or skates if you will, of these young women was so full circle for me as a lover of skating, an image-maker and an alum. Hundreds of us share a distinct story that is worth spotlighting”. Through a series of black-and-white photographs of the participants, Flo champions the young girls’ talent, their dedication and, above all else, their powerful expressions of freedom on the ice.
“All I did was shoot what I saw and what I thought was worth being seen; the moments of togetherness, sisterhood, the girls off-guard but also alert and focused,” Flo tells It’s Nice That. “The story really tells itself. As a photographer my eyes will take to the light or composition or contrast of a moment first. Then, coupled with wanting to story-tell through my images, I believe the selects process allowed the story of this team and these young women to really shine through.” Flo’s series combines pre and post-practice moments with shots of the girls dancing on ice. In so doing, the Harlem-born photographer offers viewers a comprehensive insight into the girls’ training schedules and the community that grows around it. Shots of the participants standing together, applauding each other and helping one another out highlight the strong sense of togetherness that Figure Skating in Harlem fosters.
Having previously photographed Miami’s Broward Carnival, an annual celebration of Caribbean culture and West Indian traditions, as well as New York’s African American Day Parade, it is clear that Flo’s photographic practice centres on community and collectivity. “I’ve always had a knack for people in my photography and the way humans exist on a day-to-day authentic level,” Flo says. “This series on Figure Skating in Harlem allowed me to capture what I love from a very specific perspective, having been a former figure skater of colour myself and actually remembering quite a few of these young ladies when they were just little girls years ago.”
Her photographs of Figure Skating in Harlem will soon be displayed in Flo’s first solo exhibition, Harlem Ice: The Selects Folder. As Flo says, “[t]here are hundreds of selects that did not make the cut and I’m excited to share this glimpse into a subculture that speaks to the necessity of access, power of opportunity, and love of sport.”
Harlem Ice: The Selects Folder will be on display at Compére Collective Gallery, New York from 13 October to 26 October 2019.