While site seeing in Lower Manhattan, a traveler’s brochure might suggest you take a peek into City Hall and pander through countless historical documents. A tour guide might walk you through Wall Street to check out some of the most monumental reminders of our economic endeavors.
We rejoice as we pass by these spectacles; each holds something meaningful to our existence. Yet, some of these sites have a tainted historical embodiment that many natives, tourists, and history books fail to acknowledge.
African-American photographer Nona Faustine doesn’t accept the white patriarchal overrule that she feels is essentially erasing a part of our country’s past–one we must truly “Never Forget.” The Brooklyn-born artist has been calling out the city’s rather blatant denial of its roots in slavery within her latest self-portrait series, “White Shoes.”
Within the installment, Faustine poses nude before former slave trading spots that now host some of the city’s greatest treasures, calling attention to the sites’ enduring, inhumane legacy.
“The series came out of my love and fascination with New York City, in particular its suppressed history of slavery,” Faustine tells me. “I began questioning my place in all that history and how it has impacted my life after I came across an image of two enslaved women of the 19th century.”
The imagery is derivative of the incessant discrimination, oppression, and hate people of color have faced, and continue to struggle with today. Faustine informs me that many popular Big Apple sites–including City Hall, Wall Street, and the Supreme Court–were once burial sites or slave market places for slaves.
What’s perhaps most striking to spectators is Faustine’s naked body pitted against these oftentimes overly congested attractions. Faustine finds power in her naked form, noting that when she stands nude, she does not feel the pain thousands of faceless slaves endured, but rather the strength they communicated through their actions.
“Slaves were often stripped naked on the auction block,” Faustine lets me know. “My nudity is a form of protest and speaks to the oppression and brutality experienced by the enslaved then, and even the current climate now.”
Faustine highlights different eras of black oppression through the masking of her face in particular shots. When masked, she is free to embody the life of her great-grandmother who was brought over to the states on a slave ship with her sister. In other shots, it appears as if Faustine hole-punched her face, hinting at those comprised enslaved lives that went forgotten and unnamed with time. When unmasked, Faustine is confronting the current struggles people of color face today.
The namesake of the series duly acts as an attention grabber in each shot: Faustine’s white pumps. The indignant artist, when revisiting sites that once bestowed atrocious acts, is deliberately adorned in the heels for more than simplistic fashion purposes.
“The white shoes represent the white patriarchy in which people of color can never escape,” Faustine says. “The heels are also representative of a kind of privilege and feminism that has eluded women of color to this day.”
Faustine hopes to encourage “empathy for your fellow man and woman” through her work. It’s when these silenced voices and hidden faces are put to the forefront that horrid aspects of our past can surface, and our present can begin to progress.
All photos courtesy of Nona Faustine.