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While summer and winter come and go in their stable cycles, one thing that we can reliably assume about a dense modern city like New York is that it is always construction season. The streets, the buildings, the subways, the entire place is in a constant state of flux; the old being torn down, fixed or replaced and the new being restlessly piled right on top. Places that once had a particular use or function are routinely paved over and while small plaques and monuments dot the city and remind us of the history of a particular townhouse or park, the churn of urban change moves forward with such interminable force that most of what used to be has long ago been rolled over and forgotten. The city, it seems, waits for no one. Yet, for the African-American photographer Nona Faustine, many of the lost histories of this city still have a formidable personal resonance. Faustine is most well known for her self-portrait series titled “White Shoes”, which visualizes the meaning of being a black woman existing in the afterlife of slavery in the United States. Using performance, self-portraiture and photography, Faustine’s creative process for “White Shoes” began with meticulous research on New York’s historical relationship to slavery. Throughout the five boroughs, she uncovered the locations of ancient slave burial grounds, slave markets, slave owning farms and the ports where slave ships docked that go back to even before the Revolutionary War. She then visited these places in their current form and pictured herself standing naked with nothing but a pair of white high heel shoes on. Her black, plumpish, female body stands exposed and vulnerable, yet poised and strong. It becomes perceptible that her self-portraits comprise more than an evocation of the history of slavery. They are also poignant calls to rethink the afterlife of slavery, to viscerally remember those who were enslaved, and to personify the history of slavery through a performance and intervention that collapse time, in a sense, and connect her current life back to the lingering ghosts of the past.
In the photograph titled, “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth”, Nona Faustine has positioned herself on an auction block in broad daylight at the dead center of the photograph. Her entirely naked body, except for a set of shackles on her wrists and a lovely pair of white patent leather high-heeled shoes, appears larger than life in relation to the street behind her (we can see 75 Wall Street in the background). Her two gleaming white shoes mirror the headlights on the cab that has come into the intersection. The lines on the street from recent tarring run from the box she is standing on directly back to the front tires of the taxicab. In this photograph, one of the many aspects that uncovers its meaning is the taxi, because it shows the artist as visible, not just to us, but to others within the frame of the photograph. The public nature of her street performance makes her vulnerability and exposure literal. So, what does it mean for a woman, especially a black woman, to occupy space in this public manner? From a strictly logistical standpoint, Faustine is prone to the heteronormative male gaze and its sense of entitlement and voyeuristic titillation. She is also vulnerable to assault or subsequent arrest by the police. Instead, she has put herself under surveillance and braved these potential threats to make this picture. All of these conditions become part of what we see. In her assertive, straightforward gaze and in her comfort with her nakedness in the middle of a city street, Faustine communicates the importance of reclaiming her hypersexualized black naked body with pride and deliberate provocation from a world that is still apparently anti-black and misogynistic.
The ways in which Faustine incorporates herself into a landscape reminiscent of slavery and its afterlife makes her work deeply tied to a specific vulnerability that is unique to black female subjects. “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth” is an explicit reference to the ways in which global capitalism is centered on black women’s wombs. Maria Schwartz discussed in her article, “Good Breeders”, how the black woman’s reproductive role became politically and economically decisive as a source of capital for the slave community. Thereby, when considering the ways in which the generational wealth of the White American elite has foundations in the slave trade, it is clear that the forced reproductive labor of black women is what facilitated a system of unpaid labor, allowing for the white upper classes to have what Faustine rightfully identifies as “their greatest wealth.”
Faustine’s photographs also point to the fact that one of the earliest forms of wealth accumulation in the Americas depended on the ownership of black bodies. She urges us to recall our own history and how it has molded our thinking and our lives as well as to gravely consider how we have come to have what we have now and on whose backs we rode to achieve it. In his article for The Atlantic titled, “The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the importance of slavery for the white economy and then traces the subsequent prejudicial policies, specifically red-lining, which kept African Americans from accumulating middle-class wealth after World War II, the period when many Americans established middle class lives during an expanding post war economy, in large part through home ownership. It is striking how we can still witness the implications of these governmental policies and how they contribute to the creation of ghettos as well as limit the opportunities for African Americans generally. Thus, Nona Faustine can be conceptualized as a living monument that demands us to recognize the realities of racism that are still part of day-to-day experience.
The “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth” photograph became a way to personify the history of slavery in the wake of discourses on slavery that disembody the black subject from that history. In “Slavery and the Theatre of History on the Auction Block,” Jason Stupp described the black body in contemporary performances (like the 1994 reenactment of a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg) as being a “vessel onto which is projected the anxieties and contradictions of those living in a historically white-supremacist nation.” Hence, the clear intervention in “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth” produces anxiety for those who live in arrogance about the nation’s anti-black foundations and for those who believe performing the history of slavery in this way is insensitive to those who lived through it. Furthermore, the photograph stages an intervention into the slaveholding past of the North, while also signaling towards the performative nature of slave auctions themselves, thereby acting as another embodied approach at theorizing black womanhood. For instance, black female bodies displayed on the auction block were scrutinized for specific requirements that the buyer was seeking and particularly narrativized as laboring for whiteness, whether this is about sexual violence, work on the plantation, or reproduction of enslaved subjects. Black women’s visibility on the auction block is linked to the scrutiny under which their bodies are placed. Faustine’s photograph is a re-enactment of that site; the reality of the photograph reflects the hypervisibility of black women on the auction block. The realism of the shot is not only a link to memorialization, recognition and commentary on the afterlife of slavery, but it is also astonishingly striking.
What Faustine offers the viewer is a performed posture that resembles a radical representation of a historical moment or image. Some people may argue that it is not always apparent that there is a prominent and distinguished breakaway from the original representation and if the original demonstration is intended to hurt and wound, then how does this contemporary illustration transform and reroute? The notion that Faustine’s images are reimaginations instead of reproductions of the original comes from the knowledge of her intent, the photographs’ contemporary nature, and the response from the arts world which outlines the purpose of the images in terms of disrupting original representations of the body. Instead of defining the utility of her photographs in terms of their ability to recreate images, what is notable and clear is that they represent a moment marked by a black woman artist who is calling us to reopen the visual archive of racial slavery. To me, Faustine’s embodiment of black women on the auction block is about more than a performative self-portrait that re-enacts the past, it is about the articulation of a historical occurrence through the visual culture that is greatly applicable to our contemporary moment. So, Faustine is working through historical symbols of black embodiment in a moment of black women’s continued oppression. Her work is an apparent articulation on the discourse of black women’s visual representation today that still demands an urgent return to images of the past.
Faustine’s photographic series “White Shoes” are not simply a before and after look of a historical site or social change. At each of the places she visited, her performative stances bring together a complex mix of emotions and realities, both past and present, where extreme liability (especially as a woman) and a sense of being stripped and devalued are mixed with resistance and defiance, of standing up to forces (as embodied by her confining white shoes) that would push her down. The best of these pictures echo with all of these layered emotions, making them much more nuanced than just a reproduction or replication of the original and historical event. Her pictures are much more of a search for identity, an attempt to both remember the past and to come to grips with its influence on her present as well as shed light on the muted voices and hidden bodies that were pushed away as part of a dreadful history that aches to be forgotten.
- Faustine, Nona. From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth, 2013. Photograph.
- Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. “Antebellum Enslavers Struggled to Control Their Single Economic Wellspring; Female Sexuality.” Slate Magazine, 24 Aug. 2015.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 22 June 2018.
- Stupp, Jason. “Slavery and the Theatre of History: Ritual Performance on the Auction Block.” Theatre Journal, vol. 63, no. 1, 2011.
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