Nona Faustine’s photographs are blowing up on Facebook and no one is more surprised than her. Born and raised in Brooklyn, with a distinct city accent, her tone is as light as her work is somber. In the “White Shoes” photo series, Faustine appears in the places where African slaves were bought, sold, and traded in 1620’s New York City. Her expression is solemn, in some photos there is a shackle on one of her limbs, and aside from her shoes, she is completely naked.
Go to the article to see some of the pictures. I saw the first one on Twitter a few days ago; it’s very powerful.
I like to think that every piece of art has an inciting incident, some happening or realization that plants the seed of its own creation. What would you say was the inciting incident for your “White Shoes” series?
I always wanted to make a really powerful piece of work, and there are things you carry with you throughout your life: ideas, incidents, and history. The story of my life is a family impacted by the fact that I had a great-grandmother who was an enslaved African, and my mother grew up with her. She told [my mother] all the stories of her life. Then there was me, being a born and bred New Yorker, discovering the African Burial Ground and realizing there was slavery here in this city.
For some people, your photos have been a revelation. They didn’t realize slave trading ever happened in New York City. Why do you think people remain unaware of this city’s history with slavery?
I don’t know because it is not a secret. It’s like anything. You just pick up a book on whatever topic you’re interested in and you’ll find a lot of information.
I wish we were a lot better at knowing our history though.
What kinds of reactions has “White Shoes” elicited from people around you?
My Facebook page exploded, friend requests exploded, my Instagram exploded. I’m not really great at Instagram, but I have an account, so when those numbers went up I knew something happened here. Lots of black women have embraced the art. It’s talking about pain and it’s talking about celebration, and they want desperately to see themselves in the larger media. It’s not often we see someone who looks like me out there, and they embrace that. People have reached out to me from Tasmania, Paris, Germany, some guy told me all of Africa was behind me, and I thought Really? All of Africa? [laughs] You sure about that?
Wellll people exaggerate. They don’t read history, and they exaggerate.
ny negative reactions?
You expect that from white men because they always want to try to talk about black women’s bodies, and they stay lusting after black women and secretly fetishizing black women. Yet, they’ll publicly get on an article that’s talking about me and make a derogatory comment about my body. But when you see people who go out of their way to come to my Facebook page and leave a message under whatever article, “No one wants to see your big ass.” I laugh because at this point, I’ve accepted my body and who I am, whether I lose weight or not. I have self-love. I have walked the walk, I have paid the price, and I accept myself with love. So, I laugh because those people have a problem that has no relation to me.
Do you know what it takes—knowing how the world looks at fat people, imperfect bodies, or old women—to actually say I’m going to strip my clothes off and I’m going to put myself out there? I’m not putting myself on a pedestal, but I’m saying know how the world looks at that action. Know how the world feels when I defy that and say, “I don’t give a shit.”
I do know. I gasped at her courage when I first saw that photo.
Any advice for a young woman of color who dreams of being a photographer?
Go for it. We need more artists of color out there. And we need artists of color who are going to go the distance. Don’t them stop you. There are so many roadblocks, ones they put out there for you, and ones you put out there yourself. I did that. I put roadblocks up for myself, and it took family support to encourage me to go back to it. It took me maturing a bit.
My life changed when I had a baby. I had to think about what was really important, what was the message I wanted to hand down to my daughter. You’re talking about legacy? I wanted my daughter to be proud of me. I didn’t want to have to tell her I gave up on my dreams.
Photography, and being an artist is not a career, it’s a calling.
Go for it. Always go for it.