Nona Faustine Never Leaves the Frame

It makes perfect sense that Nona Faustine’s introduction to professional photography was through photojournalism. While her photographs are always premeditated and posed, their primary intent is to calcify a particular moment in time to ensure that she — and we — never forget it.

Her photo series “White Shoes,” her most historically anchored project, is on display in its entirety for the very first time at the Brooklyn Museum. The show consists of 43 self-portraits that memorialize locations throughout New York City’s five boroughs and areas of Long Island with underrecognized histories of slavery, from spaces as green as Brooklyn’s Botanical Garden to the trash-covered asphalt of Wall Street.

In this striking series, the artist typically poses blank-faced and nude, save a pair of white high heels — a nod to the church shoes historically worn by Black women as well as a symbol of the predominantly white country Black Americans have inhabited, and fought to reshape, since the early days of the slave trade. Sometimes, Faustine punctuates her nudity with a veil or a scarf draped over her head; other times she wears an apron on her waist with a frying pan in hand. She doesn’t always face the camera, but she is always centered in the frame, drawing our eyes toward her resounding body in the foreground.

Nona Faustine: White Shoes,” the artist’s first major solo museum exhibition, is also something of a homecoming. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Faustine, 47, shares a deep connection to the borough. About a third of the images in the series were taken in Brooklyn, including “Say Her Name” (2016), a portrait she took with her mother in her family’s apartment in Flatbush.

In 2020, speaking of “White Shoes,” Faustine told a crowd at U.C. Berkeley’s Arts + Design Initiative, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be finished. That’s OK with me.” She started the ongoing project in 2012, while she was in graduate school at the International Center of Photography at Bard College. After reading about Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman, the native South African Khoikhoi woman whom Parisians paraded around Europe as an object of sexual fascination in the 19th century — during an era of scientific racism — Faustine was inspired to reclaim the Black female body. In several of her portraits, Faustine sits or stands on a display box, reminding us of the way women like Baartman were simultaneously eroticized and dehumanized. By posing stripped down, yet dignified, the artist both commemorates Baartman and her enslaved counterparts while also reimagining them. In the hands of a lesser artist, this re-enactment might feel forced. But in Faustine’s portraits, which use props minimally and strategically, the symbolism is subtle and frictionless.

The show is not only about the history of slavery in New York — which the wall text puts into context for the viewer — but also about Black women, matrilineage and the canon of feminist art history. The gallery where the curators, Catherine Morris and Carla Forbes, have situated this show is in the shape of a triangle. When you enter the space, you’d have to try hard to miss Judy Chicago’s linchpin piece of contemporary feminist art, “Dinner Party” (1974-79), flanking the gallery’s right-hand wall. The proximity of the artworks provoked me to think about where Faustine sits within the devastatingly short history of feminist art.

Most obviously, Faustine’s work, particularly her photos taken at home, recall that of the great Carrie Mae Weems’s, specifically the “Kitchen Table Series (1990), whose staged black-and-white photographs captured Weems and her family as they moved in and out of her home kitchen. A slightly more contemporary in-law of an artist might be Iiu Susiraja, the Finnish photographer whose scrappy, domestic self-portraits, use the body to encourage the viewer to reckon with their own discomfort. While viewers are likely much less familiar with Faustine’s work than Weems’, I’d wager that one day we will look back at her with the same level of regard.

The photos that open the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum are the series’ earliest (dating roughly from 2012 to 2015), and also some of its most powerful. In “They Tagged The Land With Trophies and Institutions From Their Rapes And Conquests, Tweed Courthouse, NYC” (2013), Faustine is at the top of the steps of the Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan’s City Hall Park — nude and in her white shoes. She is in a lunge position, arms pushing against one of the building’s massive stone columns in a Sysiphean battle against the built environment. As the wall text tells us, in 2002, archaeologists uncovered 23 skeletons below the sidewalk in front of the Tweed Courthouse, very likely the remains of enslaved people buried in the African Burial Ground, whose remnants run under much of present day Lower Manhattan.

The very process of taking these photos reminds us of the risk involved in being a Black person in America. As Faustine has noted in talks to the public, while shooting images like “60 Centre Street, Supreme Court, NYC,” another nude taken on courthouse steps, she had to unrobe herself and shoot her portrait in mere seconds while a group of her friends blocked a police booth nearby. If the authorities caught her, she could be arrested. Such an act would make anyone vulnerable, but the dangers are only heightened for a Black woman.

In another image, from 2013, “From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, Wall St., NYC,” Faustine stands on a wooden box in the middle of an intersection at 74 Wall Street, between Water Street and Pearl Street, where, from 1711 to 1762, enslaved people were auctioned for profit in today’s financial capital. Her hands are shackled as a taxi whirs behind her.

“We had to shoot in between traffic lights,” Faustine writes of the process in her book on the series. Looking into her eyes, you expect fear, but find a distinguished expression. How? Why? There’s almost an imperative to learn more.

This is the power of “White Shoes”: to force us to pay attention and to ask more questions. The final images in the show — the most recent additions to the series, all from 2021 — strike a more fantastical chord. In “Guardian, Colored Burial Ground, Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, NY 2021” and “No Resting Place For My Weary Soul, Corona, Queens,” Faustine’s entire body is draped in a glittery gold cape. She’s turned away from the camera, and looks like she could almost take flight. She is protecting her ancestors as they revisit these sites of pain and pleasure, we learn.

By the show’s final image, “Benevolent spirits, tracing steps free bare feet from this world to the other,” Faustine’s body has gone from shrouded to invisible. We’re left with an image of her empty white heels digging at the dirt. We are compelled to recall the Black women who have perished from this earth. It’s a lasting image for us to take away, so that we never, ever forget what transpired in our very own city.

Nona Faustine: White Shoes

Through July 7 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000;

Alana Pockros is on the editorial staff at The Nation and Cleveland Review of Books.

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