Nona Faustine's Nude Self Portraits Expose New York's History of Slavery
"The idea of being that exposed and vulnerable--I felt that I had to do it in a way that paid tribute to the women enslaved before me."
Photos by Nona Faustine
Nona Faustine poses in the middle of Wall Street standing on a makeshift wooden box. Wearing only a pair of white-heeled pumps, she looks expressionlessly into her camera. The self-portrait, From Her Body Came the Greatest Wealth, is part of her series "White Shoes."
The photographic series is at once strikingly conceptual and deeply disturbing. "White Shoes"--its name taken from the unscuffed pristine heels Faustine wears in every photograph--features the artist standing in some of New York's most famous places, surrounded by storied architecture and celebrated histories. But the Brooklyn-based photographer isn't there to pay or play with the city's iconic locations; rather, she's there to unearth hidden histories. As Faustine stands in the middle of Wall Street or between the broad columns of City Hall or beneath the portico of the State Supreme Court, she excavates a largely hidden history: the history of slavery on which New York is built.
There is little in New York that reminds the average inhabitant of the city's ugly past. But throughout the 18th century, Wall Street operated as the city's slave market--a large wooden structure stood on the street, its size rivaled only by Charleston, South Carolina's auction house. Thousands of African slaves stood on rudimentary boxes echoed in Faustine's self-portrait; bodies on display, fates controlled by others, they waited to be sold. It's estimated that throughout the century as many as 20 percent of New Yorkers were slaves.
Faustine's "White Shoes" is a series is a kind of memorial to that history, an attempt to conjure up the spirits of black women who were demeaned and sold in Manhattan's streets. "A force greater than myself was pushing me to do the series," Faustine told Broadly. "It's like the ancestors were calling me."
Read More: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored
"White Shoes" is a project that's enveloped by histories--both New York's history of slavery and the history of medium itself.
Faustine came by photography rather naturally. "Photography," Faustine said, is "something that was part of my upbringing." For Faustine, photography was a way to bond with family, both near and far: Her father and her uncle were the family photographers, taking pictures not only of Faustine and her sister at their home in Brooklyn, but also of the extended "family down South," and she said the photo albums that filled her home were a "treasure of immediate family." Fittingly, her first camera was a gift from her uncle.
Despite a childhood surrounded by photography, Faustine initially viewed the medium as a hobby, something that families did just to preserve and share memories. It wasn't until her parents gave her a series of Time Life books that she understood that it "was something that people do," she recalled. She spent her childhood flipping through the image-heavy books, monographs dedicated to titans of the field like Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon. She was particularly drawn to the photographs of Ernst Haas, the Austrian-born photojournalist took a series of color photographs that captured the riveting movement of a Spanish bullfight. Faustine loved Haas' bullfighting photographs; it was those images that made her realize that "you can create ...with the camera."
Though Faustine admired Haas' work, she said that she struggled to find herself in the limited documentary model that the lush Time Life books offered up, perhaps in part because the books--like the history of photography itself--celebrated photographers who were disproportionately male and all white. While earning her MFA at the International Center for Photography-Bard College program, Faustine began to move away from that limited documentary model. "It just didn't work for me anymore," Faustine said. "I wanted more room to play with communication. Conceptual works appealed to me."
It was at Bard that Faustine found the abstract language she needed to embark on "White Shoes." Influenced by the groundbreaking work of Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, Faustine began the series as her thesis project in 2012, and for the past three years she's continued to add to it.
It took a while for Faustine to gestate the series: "It's encompassed several years of my life," she said, "I kept thinking about it over and over." Faustine had quite a bit of history--both personal and political--to work through as she made "White Shoes." First she researched the history of slavery in New York, then she had to grapple with the concept of the body--both her own body and also the representation of black women's bodies in the media--and finally the history of the black body in photography.
Faustine said she had always wanted to photograph her own body for the series. She wanted "White Shoes" to exist as self-portraiture--in part because she felt a "strong solidarity" with the enslaved women who had stood there before her, but also because self-portraiture eliminated the issue of exploitation. Her decision to appear nude in photographs wasn't an easy one, though. "Just the thought of taking my clothes off in public...it was terrifying," she laughed.
Despite her initial misgivings, Faustine wanted to challenge herself "around issues that surrounded my own body." When she started shooting the series, she had just given birth to a daughter, and her body initially felt almost foreign. Yet beyond the personal, Faustine truly felt a sense of history and lineage motivating her work. "The idea of being that exposed and vulnerable--I felt that I had to do it in a way that paid tribute to the women enslaved before me," she said.
There were two women in particular whose lives--whose images--underpinned the series: Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman forcibly brought to Europe and exhibited in "human zoos" throughout the late-18th and early-19th centuries, and a South Carolina slave named Delia. Prints of Baartman's body proliferated throughout the period, ugly caricatures that reveled in stereotypes meant to reassure white audiences of their racial superiority. If Baartman and her exploited body form the visual history of Faustine's work, then Delia haunts both artist and her medium.
Known only by her first name, Delia was a South Carolina slave photographed by the naturalist Louis Agassiz. Delia's photograph was taken by Agassiz in 1850, part of a larger project meant to prove the racial inferiority of Africans--it's part and parcel of an ugly history of photography that, like New York's slave trade, is often buried beneath heroic and celebratory histories. For every elegant body captured by Avedon, or thrilling bullfight taken by Haas, there are photographs of the oppressed: photographs of slaves, used as a kind of propaganda by proponents of eugenics and ethnography. Delia's body was one of the many exploited; an unwilling canvas on which theories of racial superiority were inscribed. In Agassiz's photograph, Delia is captured half-length, fully-facing the camera; her dress has been removed down to her waist, her breasts are bared, there are tears in her eyes.
"These women were my muse in way," Faustine says. "I keep thinking about Delia, about her vulnerability...that look in her eye. [I imagined] myself in her place. How did she feel having her daughter taken at that moment? She had no control."
The ideology that justified Delia and Baartman's dehumanization extends into the modern day. "Black women are still dehumanized in their everyday lives," the photographer says. "By law enforcement, by the media. I felt like I didn't see a lot of women who looked like me and I felt a deep desire to be visible in that respect, because we are not visible."
With her work, Faustine doesn't only demand that hidden histories be seen: She also insists that the history of visual representation of black women must be virtually gutted, the stereotypes and institutions that form their foundation overturned. Faustine demands that the narratives inscribed on black women's bodies be entirely rewritten on their own terms.
Art that can evoke history while remaining perpetually politically relevant is rare. "White Shoes"does just that, and it makes her work increasingly powerful. And Faustine seems particularly poised to redefine the representation of black women. By photographing Delia and Baartman's bodies, white men actively sought to create specific narratives about their bodies--narratives the subjects of the photos could neither control nor influence. Faustine both draws from that history and corrects it. Past and present interweave in her work; as she summons the spirits of Delia and Baartman, she allows them to author their own bodies, to speak for themselves. Faustine then creates photographs that revel in tensions: mournful and powerful, they excavate more than mere language would allow.
It's for this reason that Faustine uses an African mask in some of the photographs in the series. Take for example, She Gave Me All Should Could Give and Still They Ask For More (2014): Faustine lays on a lush green landscape in a pose typical of Western nudes--legs crossed, hand on her knee-but she wears only the titular white shoes and a mask on her face. The mask, Faustine explained, is about "the idea of origin, going back to my history. The presence of Africa in all...African Americans."
Like many African Americans, Faustine doesn't have to trace her genealogy very far to find slavery. Her great-grandmother was an enslaved African, and, growing up, she heard stories of her great-grandmother's life on the plantation, passed down by both her mother and grandmother. "My great-grandmother was brought on a slave ship with her four siblings," Faustine recounted. "She survived the TransAtlantic voyage. So that connection is very deep, it's one of the reasons I chose to put on the mask."
As a medium, photography preserves. However, it's also frustratingly ephemeral; its chemicals and emulsions can fade and erase. Faustine says that there are no surviving photographs of her great-grandmother's face: The last remaining photograph of her great-grandmother has been so heavily damaged that her face is obscured and only her body remains.
Growing up, Faustine had a deep desire to know what her great-grandmother looked like, to better understand her, to know her physicality and the contours of her face. After persistently asking, her mother finally told Faustine: "All you have to do is look in the mirror, and you'll see her."