Photographer Nona Faustine Illuminates NYC’s History of Slavery

As Americans, it is tempting to try to turn a blind eye to the sheer closeness of our country’s history of slavery. In New York City especially, a city which claims to be one of the most socially progressive in the country, people don’t often look around and confront New York’s involvement with the slave trade. Yet, that history is there, and it lives on in our parks, buildings, and landmarks.

That’s where photographer Nona Faustine comes in, with her exhibit Nona Faustine: White Shoes currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit features a series of self-portraits taken in sites across New York with deep histories of slavery. 

Nona Faustine is a visual artist and photographer, born and raised in Brooklyn. Her work explores history, identity, and representation. Nona received a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MFA at the International Center for Photography-Bard College program. Though she was immersed in photography as a medium for so many years, it’s likely that Nona didn’t see herself in many of the photographs she studied, so she took representation into her own hands by pursuing self-portraiture. 

In 2008, Nona began an ongoing series, Mitochondria. In this series, Nona photographs herself, her mother, her sister, and her daughter in their home in Brooklyn. The name, Mitochondria, refers to the mitochondrial DNA, which is solely inherited from the mother. The series celebrates the power of Black womanhood, passed down from generation to generation, and the beauty of the love of family, of lifting each other up and supporting each other through life despite the struggles and oppression they each face. 

Nona’s next big project was White Shoes. In White Shoes, Nona dons a pair of white, “sensible heels,” purchased from Payless. The exhibit description states, “For the artist, these ‘Church Lady’ shoes are complex symbols of the enduring matrilineal histories carried by generations of Black women, as well as the assimilation into dominant white social structures and propriety.” 

Click on image to enlarge

The White Shoes series shows Nona posing (often nude, aside from the white pumps) at various sites around New York with a particular history of slavery: at the former Seneca Village, where the majority of Black property owners lived before the city dismantled it to build Central Park, at slave-owning estates in in Brooklyn and the Bronx, at the African Burial Ground monument in Lower Manhattan, where an estimated 15,000 African-Americans, many who spent their lives in slavery, are buried. 

In one of my favorite photos of the exhibit, Nona pays tribute to Dorothy Angola, one of the first enslaved women to be brought to New York in the 1600s. After the death of her husband, Dorothy fought to retain the rights to her family’s farms, located in what is the West Village today. She successfully retained her freedom, and that of her family, throughout her life, even when the British gained power over New Amsterdam. In the photo, Nona stands in the street of the West Village, her hand on her hip and her foot up on a tree stump, in a pose that says, “this place is mine.” 

There is so much that’s moving about White Shoes. Not the least of which is the fact that, for a woman with a larger, Black body, representation can be difficult to find. Yet, here is Nona, standing with her head held high, allowing her body to be seen in high-definition.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of White Shoes, a picture is worth many more words than that. We can learn about New York’s history in books, and we can acknowledge it aloud, but it won’t express the visceral closeness of it all, the very real and lasting impact that endures to this day, the way that Nona’s photos do. 

There is power in photography, in who decides what is captured and how. With White Shoes, Nona takes this power into her own hands, literally, by acting as both photographer and subject. Beyond that, she turns the lens on our country’s history, forcing us to confront the ongoing ramifications of slavery. With White Shoes, Nona says, “see me for all that I am, and see New York for all that it is, and don’t look away.” 

© Julia Lasker (5/4/24) — Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

See more photos included in the Nona Faustine: White Shoes exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition — organized by Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art — opened on March 8, 2024 & runs through Sunday, July 7, 2024.

Read illuminating article about the symbols Nona Faustine uses in her work (including the golden cape).

Visit Nona Faustine’s Wikipedia page.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Note that the Featured Photo of Nona Faustine posed at the African Burial Ground National Monument in downtown Manhattan (seen at the top of this post) was photoshopped by us so readers could focus on Nona Faustine’s face and figure against the black wall behind her.

The middle photo is the original image provided by the Brooklyn Museum and used with their permission. All Rights Reserved. The golden cape Nona Faustine wears in photos serves to represent the feminine divine, an energy that promotes positive change in the world and serves to protect sites that carry the legacies of the enslaved.

Bottom Photo: Nona Faustine  Special thanks to Chris Abavanas (Public Affairs Specialist at National Gallery of Art) for providing the photo. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: African Burial Ground, Black female photographer, Black photographer, Brooklyn Photographer, Dorothy Angola, Mitochondria, New York City, Nona Faustine, Nona Faustine: White Shoes, self portraits, self portraiture, Seneca Village

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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