When considering the work of photographer Nona Faustine, William Faulkner’s famed quote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” rings especially true. Born and raised in Brooklyn where she still resides, Faustine has a historian’s passion for the chronicle of New York City, where she’s lived all her life. In her breakout photographic series White Shoes, shown in its entirety this past winter at Smack Mellon, she plumbed an uncomfortable and often-overshadowed aspect of New York’s story: the role it played in America’s slave-owning past. Faustine, who is African-American, photographed herself nude, excepting a pair of white, high-heeled shoes on her feet posed in sites around lower Manhattan and in Brooklyn that were key to the system of bondage until New York State abolished slavery in 1827. The series garnered much attention, and she will have several upcoming solo exhibitions of this and other work, including at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York this September and at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, in 2017. On a mild spring evening earlier this year, Faustine and I sat talking for hours in a cozy bar in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
JESSICA HOLMES: As an undergraduate at SVA you majored in photography, but for a while afterwards you took a different path through the art world. Tell me about that.
NONA FAUSTINE: I was not a practicing artist or photographer for many years. I had given up because I didn’t build a community for myself, or a support network. I did not know how to survive as an artist. I had no practice. So I didn’t tell people I was an artist. I worked for years as an administrator in the arts. I worked at the Brooklyn Museum for six years, and then I got a job at an arts organization in Manhattan. I was the education coordinator, and then I became the office manager. After my daughter was born I was laid off from that job.
Finally, my sister said to me, “What the hell are you doing?” I walked into the kitchen one day and like a medium, she said, “What are you doing? You have this incredible talent, and you’re wasting it.” And then she turned right back to her computer and kept going, just like that! It snapped me out of my trance.
JH: So you decided to return to graduate school?
NF: I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve got to go back and see if there’s something left, if I really do have this talent.” I went to the International Center of Photography at Bard College. I strongly believe had I not had the kind of structure and discipline I received there, I would not have come up with the White Shoes series.
JH: Tell me about how you conceived of the series, and how it evolved?
NF: I’ve told people in the past that it generated from 17 years of prior thought. Things that occurred in my everyday life: moments, discoveries, places, time, people, my love of New York City history, my love of the African burial ground [located at 290 Broadway in Manhattan] and its discovery.
JH: That’s something that draws me to your work. You’re a photographer but you’re a historian, too.
NF: I’ve always loved history. I’ve been attracted to archaeology from the time I was a little girl. My dad used to talk with me about archaeology and the new discoveries. Growing up in New York—it’s such an old place. If you’re an artist, if you have an artist’s eye, an artist’s mind, you begin to question, “Well, what was here before?” I found myself always asking that. So when they discovered the African burial ground in 1992, I gravitated towards it, learning more about my city and what was here.
I knew immediately that this discovery was important and historic, because I knew what I was being taught in school, which was, “New York had slaves, but we freed our slaves early, and there wasn’t much of it here.”
JH: Even though New York didn’t abolish slavery until 1827.
NF: Slaves built the wall for Wall Street. They were literally the commodities, the first trade, on Wall Street. So that was one of the issues. The challenge was how to put this history that’s largely invisible together with the celebration of this fat, black body who had recently given birth to a baby I was so proud of. I was terrified of going out there and taking my clothes off in public. At first I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just wear a little cape. I’ll be naked underneath but I’ll wear a little cape?”
JH: You’re in a very vulnerable position, not just physically but emotionally, as well as in relation to the history you are talking about. In these images, your body is the component that fuses the present with the past.
NF: Right! Not only are there issues around safety, but also there are issues around a kind of exploitation. The image of black women, and porn, and the stereotypes that have been built up for generations about our nude bodies and who black women really are—the Jezebel, the Hottentot. I maintained images on my wall: drawings of Venus Hottentot, and Louis Agassiz’s commissioned photographs of Delia, a plantation slave. They were there to say, “Keep going, don’t give up.”
JH: When I look at your photographs I see those older images reflected, but it’s not that you’re replicating them. It’s more like you’re channeling them.
NF: I call it conjuring.
JH: Conjuring! That’s a good word. Still, when a nude, female body is depicted in an image, sexuality will nearly always come into play.
NF: It’s a really delicate balance because you worry you’re playing into the male gaze, and wonder how can you deflect that? I felt in the beginning I knew the responsibility. I knew it was a risk, and I was willing to do it because I was sincere in my motives and believed I could pull it off if I could control how I posed and how I looked. If I could touch you in a place where I pushed aside that curtain of sexuality and communicated something different. I’m talking about basic humanity—and atrocities and crimes against humanity.
JH: You draw in many contemporary issues, as well. First and foremost might be body politics.
NF: Listen: fat politics, body politics is a part of White Shoes. Let’s face it: I’m naked. People are going to critique my body. That is part of the work.
Speaking as American women, issues of the body have been with us forever, right? I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, with this super-concentrated ideal about the slim body, and I never fit into that mold. So I was left out of the conversation in a lot of spaces. Women like me often are ignored. I was always told I was pretty. I had a pretty face, “for a fat girl.” When I look back now at pictures of myself in my younger years—in my 20s—I think, I wasn’t that fat! Why did I have that issue? But I know why I had that issue, and I wanted to address that in my work. I felt that I needed to be front and center, to represent that woman who is invisible, who is ostracized because of the way she looks. I needed to inject that into the conversation, and this pairs up with this invisible, ostracized slave woman, and her story, and her history, which is rarely mentioned, and never really talked about. I knew what I saw missing in popular culture. You are beginning to see a bit more representation now. Sports Illustrated put a plus-size model on its cover recently, and Annie Liebowitz photographed Amy Schumer for Vanity Fair. But there is still a whole, huge lack of women of a certain size being represented. I felt there was a need, and a discussion to be had.
JH: What kind of response have you received?
NF: I hear from a lot of women. Black women, white women, even women who are not fat but who still have body issues, who embrace the work. They contact me, or they friend me on Facebook, and I think, “What is it they see?” But I understand what they see. They see another woman who does not have a perfect body who is exercising her freedom, and embracing who she is, and giving others permission to love themselves too. Let’s face it: we are all judged so harshly. We are all upheld to a high standard of beauty that is impossible to meet. I’m grateful if I can touch those women. Part of what White Shoes is about is granting permission to love yourself. It’s about pushing back against the predominant narrative. All of the narratives, really.
JH: It is a key aspect of your work, and one of many reasons feminists have especially championed your photographs.
NF: As a woman of color I’m constantly pushing against the patriarchy, and those western ideals of beauty that even white women don’t meet a lot of times. And often when white women do, it’s manufactured. The ultimate is when you find out that even Marilyn Monroe, the most beautiful woman in the world, was not how she looked in real life, with no makeup on. Everything was a manufactured beauty, and she knew the power of that. She understood the game, but I think it tore her to pieces in the end.
JH: That’s what I was going to say. It killed her.
NF: Right. She harnessed that power, but then it back-flipped on her because when she wanted to put it down and really concentrate on acting, no one would take her seriously. She was talented, but she’d been manufactured, and no one wanted to see another side of her. She realized, “They only love me if I look a certain way.” I don’t know, but I think her anguish over that contributed to the drinking, the drugs, the putting herself in bad situations with different men. I empathize with that feeling, and with me it was this stripping down that I wanted to explore. I wanted to say, “Look at the core of who I am.”
JH: And let’s have a language to talk about it openly and frankly?
NF: I use the word “fat” because let’s be honest. We’re not pulling wool over anyone’s eyes. I am fat, and to disguise it as anything else would be absurd. I’m not ashamed of who I am. Also, when I began White Shoes, I felt as a woman I had just accomplished one of the greatest feats: giving birth. I had undergone a myomectomy three years before my daughter was born, and it left this hideous scar going from my belly button to my pubic bone, but it allowed me to have her. Then I ended up needing a C-section at her birth, which left another scar, and after having breastfed her, I really wanted to celebrate that new body that I was in.
JH: Motherhood is infrequently addressed in contemporary art.
NF: Yes. Motherhood is a whole different rag now, and again I feel there are not enough narratives about black women’s experience of motherhood. We also birth babies, and historically, we were nursemaids to white babies or nannies to white babies. We birthed and nursed and nannied a whole country! But we are not, to me, the face of motherhood. Our experiences and what we are going through is simply not there, and I want to try and contribute to that story. I’m working on another series called Mitochondrial, which refers to the maternal DNA. It is a series of photographs of my mother, my daughter, and me. I’ve really been delving into motherhood, because that’s what my life is!
JH: Earlier you mentioned empathy. When I study your photographs, it’s an emotion that’s generated in me, for a number of reasons. I’m a mother too so I know it’s a feeling you often have naturally for your children. Is empathy something that you also have in your mind while you work?
NF: You know, that word empathy is something I have come to understand the importance of. Recently, I was asked to teach an hour-long class at Missouri State University. I was very intimidated. I’ve never taught before. Finally, I kept thinking about those kids in Ferguson and how those students were out there protesting on Missouri State campus—
JH: Was the class you were asked to teach at the same campus as where the protests took place?
NF: Yes, and I thought about how those kids were out there, putting themselves on the line, and I said to myself, “You’ve got to do this.” And so at the end of the class, during the question and answer period, one person asked something like, “What is the most important thing that you can give us advice about?” And I responded, “Empathy. To have empathy for one another, no matter what color you are. But also particularly at this time, to understand where another person is coming from in their struggle, and what it is that they are fighting for.”