Artist Nona Faustine explores New York City’s past of racial injustice by photographing herself on the sites of slave burial and auction grounds, clad only in a pair of white pumps. “I wanted to uncover those places where a tangible link to the past exists,” Faustine explained in a Huffington Post interview about her photo series, White Shoes. Her photos staged on Wall Street, for example, do just that, as this was where the city’s first slave market took place.
Nudity allows Faustine to superimpose the historical experience of black bodies onto our current environment, as nakedness quite literally strips the body of the visual signifiers of time and place. This juxtaposition between past and present is especially striking in “Over My Dead Body,” which was staged at New York City Hall, as many slaves are buried under this monument that ironically represents democracy and equality. As a self proclaimed “time traveler,” Faustine crumples the historical timeline and converges two realities.
Although nude photographs often suggest sexuality or vulnerability, her stance in these highly trafficked spaces is powerful and commanding. In these photos, Faustine ascends steps and pushes the pillars of steadfast establishments while paradoxically mimicking the tradition of turning the naked bodies of black women into a spectacle. For example, Faustine’s “Venus of Vlacke bos” is a nod to images of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, a slave who was displayed and photographed in the nude by William Dunlop in the 1800s, and treated as a specimen for white Europeans to observe.
By producing and taking ownership of images of her own body, Faustine turns the tradition of fetishizing black women on its head. Both the concepts of the victimization and resilience are truly at play in her work.