Nona Faustine was really moved the first time she saw an 1850 image of an enslaved woman called Delia, alone and semi-nude.
“It was the terror in her eyes,” the Brooklyn-based photographer said of the picture. “Her face was so familiar to me. She looked like she could be one of my family members.”
Delia and another enslaved African, Sarah Baartman, who was often exhibited naked in 19th-century Europe due to her protruding buttocks and elongated labia, would inspire Faustine to begin her “White Shoes” series in 2015.
The series, which evoked the history of slavery on which New York is built, saw Faustine photographing herself nude at various locations in New York City where African slaves arrived, lived, and died.
In “Over My Dead Body,” the graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts climbed the steps toward the doors of Tweed Courthouse, in lower Manhattan, not far from the African Burial Ground monument where about 12,000 people of African descent, most of them enslaved, were buried.
In “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth,” she stood on a wooden block in the middle of Wall Street where enslaved Africans were once bought and sold.
One thing also stood out. Faustine wore white heels in all of her poses, per the title of her series. “They are symbolic of the white patriarchy that we cannot escape,” she told Dodge & Burn.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which spanned 400 years, saw many black people transported from Africa and sent to the Americas, including the United States to work on plantations.
Before and after leaving the continent, these slaves were often sent to slave markets where they were auctioned and sold. Today, many of these slave markets have been obscured or even totally buried by other buildings and the famous 75 Wall Street in New York is one of them.
Beginning with 11 captives, the New York slave trade grew to become one of the major wheels of the trade for 150 years and 75 Wall Street is the most recognized place for the auctions.
“Thousands of African slaves stood on rudimentary boxes echoed in Faustine’s self-portrait; bodies on display, fates controlled by others, they waited to be sold,” writes Vice.
Faustine’s “White Shoes” aimed at evoking the history of slavery on which New York is built.
Born into a family of photographers, it was initially tough posing naked in public places, Faustine said.
“But once I decided to go forward with the nudity, there was no going back. It is integral to the piece,” explained Faustine, who got a lot of support from her family, particularly her younger sister.
She would go with her on shoots while being on the lookout for her as it’s illegal to be nude in public in New York City.
In spite of the risks involved in the project, 43-year-old Faustine explained:
“As a time traveler, I’m very invested in the past and our future. I see myself, the people who built this city and country as one. They deserve so much recognition for their sacrifice and contributions, something that is still being denied them. There was a force deep inside of me that needed to pay homage to those who played a pivotal role in the early history of this city, and the spaces in which they existed. I wanted to uncover those places where a tangible link to the past exists. Being a documentarian at heart I wanted you to feel and see those spaces, let your mind wonder. What does a Black body look like today in the place where they sold human beings 250 years ago? No other medium but photography and film could do that.”
She also received an NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship for Photography and was a finalist in the Outwin Boochever Competition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.