In early December, on a marrow-chilling Friday morning, I was on the phone with the thirtysomething photographer Nona Faustine when my mind began to deviate somewhere else entirely. Midway through our conversation, I’d asked Faustine to characterize the position of the contemporary black woman in America. “Where does she sit in history?” I asked. What followed was a response so exceptional, a sentiment so achingly true and familiar, it never ceases to shock. I instantly began to think of the black women who orbit my life. “It’s been such a sad journey,” she said, “I’m very proud of us because we’re survivors and we’re achievers. I don’t think that the landscape of America would look the way it does without black women in it.”
Much of Faustine’s self-portraiture — often a daringly keen interrogation of selfhood, power, and history — works to probe the relationship black Americans have to the land on which they perish and stand. Her most famous set of compositions to date is White Shoes, an ongoing series where Faustine, almost always nude and wearing white heels, is photographed at former slave sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Together, the images challenge the very principles and ideologies of the country’s founding — first they force you to remember, and then to never forget.
A graduate of the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, the Crown Heights-raised Faustine debuted her inaugural solo exhibition this week at Baxter Street at CCNY. Aptly titled My Country, it features a new body of work that is both a departure and a link to White Shoes: photographs of national monuments are hindered by black lines as a deft comment on the ways in which freedom has been denied to marginalized communities of color. When we spoke, I wanted to know what, as an artist, Faustine felt was her challenge in this moment, and how her most recent spate of photography might be a way to overcome it.
NONA FAUSTINE: Before I went to college, my influences were predominantly white men that were the kings of photography, you know? Once I got into undergrad, I was introduced to more black artists, as well as women. I was able to see myself. I was able to see my community. I was able to see someone who looked like me making photography, making art. Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava — what they were doing was poetic. They were it for me. Sally Mann, too, certainly coming from that tradition — she was a mom, photographing her kids, she was using a classic aesthetic, making her own chemistry, using this really old camera — all of that was so romantic to me, in a way.
Early on in grad school, the White Shoes series began as my thesis. I had this burning desire to see myself depicted. I didn't see women that looked like me in photography, in self-portraiture. I wanted to see a body like mine, someone with my complexion, making real art and in real pieces of art. I also wanted desperately to talk about the history of New York City. It’s a history that a lot of Americans — and certainly a lot of New Yorkers — were unaware of: the existence of slavery in New York, and how intricate and deep it was to the city’s fabric. I wanted to make a commentary on that. It was about the body, it was about the history of the black body and art, but it was also, on a personal level, about myself and how I felt about my body and how I connected to that history of enslaved black and African women. I grew up loving and thinking this was the greatest city in the world, yet it wouldn’t be possible without that tragic sacrifice of enslaved Africans. I always wanted to make a great work about New York, so all of that came together in White Shoes for me.
“Something is lost when we don’t recognize all of who we are, and when the record is inaccurate.” —Nona Faustine
Being a black woman myself and loving us as I do, we have some of the greatest potential: we’re smart, we’re beautiful, we’re educated, we’re loyal. But at the same time, in many ways, it’s been such a sad journey. I’m very proud of us because we’re survivors and we’re achievers. I don’t think that the landscape of America would look the way it does without black women in it. If you think not just of the performers – we know Diana Ross, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and all those great artists – but the average woman who goes to take care of someone else’s children. The nannies who have nannied and have loved and have been taking care of other people’s children since slavery. These are women who have basically birthed and nursed a whole country. They don’t get to be talked about or seen. There’s this other contribution of women who get up everyday and they go to their 9-to-5 and their blue-collar civil service jobs. That’s the backbone of America right there.
Of course, if you’re a black person in America, you’re aware of the ways in which we fit in and the ways in which black Americans have been looked at, categorized — always being put outside of what is considered American. Often times, people have not wanted to include us or felt like we didn’t deserve it. We have been here since the beginning, that’s no surprise. I feel like when I say “my country” — which is the title of the show — it’s an affirmation. It’s this kind of in-your-face statement to people who would deny us the right of citizenship or often told us to go back to Africa, but it’s also a mantra to carry inside yourself. I belong. This is mine. I earned it. My citizenship was paid for by the first black person that stepped of the slave ship. In fact, Juan Rodriguez, who was part-Portuguese, part-African, was the first man of color here in New York. He was dropped off here, and he stayed here with the Lenape Indians. He learned their language, he married, he set up a trading post on Governor’s Island and he is the first. I felt with him and all the other ones that came afterwards in 1609. I feel like, when I say “my country,” that’s exactly what I mean. But it’s also a state of what is happening right now. Everything that is going on here, the struggle of identity and the struggle of who is American, which has been ongoing and is absolutely unbelievable to me. There’s people that would throw out that whole history and pretend as if America was solely built by white people when it has never, ever been that way.
It’s important that we keep those issues in the forefront. There’s a whole cottage industry of deniers, of people who would like to have the record set in a certain way. That’s where the generations to come get lost — even my generation. I had to learn what the true history was, and I’m still a student of American history, still uncovering and learning for myself. A lot of these things were not talked about, and I think that’s where the conflict arises. I would love for the work to be part of a broader discussion, and it seems like that is happening, along with many other visual artists and writers and filmmakers who are also doing that. Something is lost when we don’t recognize all of who we are, and when the record is inaccurate. It’s a crime. It’s a violence against the nation and against all of its citizens when we do that.
For My Country, the picture that led me to that conceptual abstraction was taken on the Staten Island Ferry. I was photographing the Statue of Liberty, and the bar of the window frame cut across the pedestal. I sort of was conscious that was happening, but at the same time I thought it wouldn’t be present in the image. But I went with it. I took the image and when I saw it, I was like, “Oh my god!” It startled me because, in that black line is the history of African Americans in America, our relationship to liberty and freedom. Even when we were enslaved, we fought for freedom. It’s been documented since [in the Declaration of Independence] that they believed in the ideals and principles that the patriots were fighting for against Britain. I saw this parallel history, and I saw freedom almost fading away. The Statue of Liberty is so far, and yet you see her.
I also saw in that black line an obstruction. That was a natural obstruction, but then I recreated it when I went to Washington and made images of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. I was looking for obstructions in the land, obstructions to freedom. It’s why when you visit the White House, there’s two layers of security, plus armed guards! It’s like the president in the White House, the people’s house, has been taken hostage. When you see the Capitol Building, you see all these barriers and you see a sign that says, “Closed.” You see the scaffolding, right up to the Capitol’s top. In a way, in the images I captured, it was symbolic of how the inner workings of our government are being held hostage by stuff obstructing it in some way, blocked from functioning for the people.
There were just so many metaphors in that black line and in those obstructions you see. In the images, you see those big clouds and they look a little scary, Apocalyptic even. It read so much of what could be coming. In that early image of the Statue of Liberty, I even felt like, “Is this a premonition? Oh my god!” And then the premonition came true with Trump being elected president. That was also a fear of mine. I was also looking at Lincoln, too. How we, black people, hold him up as a savior, as a liberator, but we know there are a lot of things about him that led him to free us, not just because he wanted black people to be free. He had a vested interest in that. He needed bodies. He needed people to fight on the Union side. Even his legacy and Washington’s — who was a slave owner — that black line has a lot of that in there. For Lincoln, his legacy is fading. Everything is fading. Everything you thought you knew is washing away, fading away as we examine the legacies of these great Founding Fathers.
I feel artists are the consciences of the societies they come from. There’s a lot of people saying, “How much of an effect, as an artist, can they have? How much change can they bring about in their work?” I go back and forth — sometimes, I believe there’s a lot of great change they can bring, and sometimes I don’t think they can bring much. One, because I think a lot of people, once they get to a certain stage in their life, are going to be set in what they believe and what they want and think. It takes a certain kind of person to be really open to changing and re-learning what they thought they knew. I still believe that artists are some of the great leaders of our time. Their work is a guide to life and this world, and they leave a record of that.
You just have to make the work that you believe in and what you want. It doesn’t have to be political — I imagine myself making work about dirt, you know? [Laughs] It doesn’t have to be so heavy. Even in that dirt, there’s something about life and being human, or about being a particle of earth.