Although the South is often the focus of the history of slavery in America, New York City has a very racist ideological past. At one point in the 18th century it is believed that 20 percent of the population of New York City were slaves. This past has informed the present because New York City has the most segregated schools in the Nation, as well as a policy of law enforcement and economics that puts black communities at odds with the rest of the city. If facts and statistics won’t catch your attention, Brooklyn based artist Nona Faustine will.
Nona Faustine’s photography is powerful. Especially her 2014 series of photographs called “White Shoes.” The title refers to the United State’s roots in white patriarchy, and the theme of this series specifically questions the history of the black body and identity and gender politics.
Faustine began photographing herself standing naked (with the exception of white heels and shackles on her wrists) on a wooden box at the places significant to New York’s 250 years of slavery. For example, the piece From her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, was taken in the middle of Wall Street, between Water and Pearl Streets. Today this location is the heart and sole of the financial market where stocks are traded daily; however until 1762, this exact location was the site of New York City’s first market where participants of the slave trade bought and sold human beings. It wasn’t until very recently that this site was given a historical marker identifying its awful past. Most New Yorkers are unbeknownst to the fact that many of the most powerful establishments (like the Tweed Courthouse, which was built over a burial ground for slaves) they walk past daily were once significant of the city’s racist history.
Faustine reflects about the African Burial Ground, “I continue to be mystified, in awe and saddened by this site that spans 6.6 acres, estimates of 15,000-20,000 bodies. The City of New York covered it with 25ft of landfill and built on top of it, interrupting the final resting place of enslaved men, women, and children to lay down the infrastructure of the city: electrical lines, water pipes, the subway, foundations of buildings among them City Hall, Tweed Court House and many Federal Building, yet there they lie every time we walk or drive over the streets of Lower Manhattan human beings.”
The image of a black woman redefining history is a powerful image and one that was necessary in Faustine’s understanding of her own body and the public perception of black women’s bodies. By posing naked she is making herself vulnerable both in a personal manner and a manner in accordance to the historical women who lived their lives in slavery.
While researching the stories of women in slavery, a woman from South Caroline named Delia became her muse. Faustine recognized Delia’s image from a piece by the artist Carrie Mae Weems titled “From Here I Saw and Cried.” Delia was originally known publicly through a mid-19th century photograph by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a proponent and leading figure in the practice of scientific racism. His theory was that races were created separate from each other and therefore were created unequally. In his portrait of Delia, she is portrayed with her breasts exposed and tearful. The use of Agassiz’s photographs were highly influential among a number of white men who used this theory to support the many facets of slavery. It is a poignant image that evokes a horrible realization of the disparity of human life and the horrific acts imparted on one another. Another historical reference that was influential on Faustine’s series were the accounts of human zoos where displaced Africans were forced on display inside of cages for the public to view as if they were animals. The exhibitionism of black women by white men is a major example of how society has valued black women.
Faustine’s body of work addresses the black woman’s’ body as a form of empowerment to break the condition of dehumanization imparted on them throughout the past and present. It is both autobiographical as well as part of the collective conscious that gives passionate truth and pride of being a woman of color. Like her influences, which range from Carrie Mae Weems, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Ana Mendieta, Nona Faustine’s work speaks a powerful truth. She says that her “White Shoes” series is ongoing and “as I find more relevant important sites I incorporate them into the narrative. Yes I eventually hope to venture outside of NYC to other locations that have the same historical importance.”
Faustine’s “White Shoes” will be on view at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn beginning on January 9th, 2016 and continuing through February 21st.