The photographer tracing the history of New York’s slave trade

The photographer tracing the history of New York’s slave trade
Nona Faustine embarked on a journey into the past, traveling across New York City’s five boroughs and Long Island between 2012–2021 to create the new exhibition and monograph ‘White Shoes.’

During the last wave of the Great Migration in the late 1960s, photographer Nona Faustine’s parents separately made their way from the South to Brooklyn, where they met and raised a family.

Coming of age in the 1980s and ‘90s, Faustine remembers going into the city to attend various cultural events, seeing de facto segregation still in full effect. “There would be times in Manhattan, like on 57th Street, where you didn’t see any Black people in these spaces until the late ‘90s, early 2000s,” she says.

While her family spoke openly about slavery and segregation, Faustine observed many of her peers at the School of Visual Arts were widely uninformed. “I realised too many of the conversations and controversies that came [in class] were because they didn't know the truth about the history of slavery in this country,” she says.

Deciding to be the change she wanted to see in this world, Faustine went straight to the source, uncovering a wealth of stories of Black life during slavery and emancipation across New York City — the primary point of the Triangular Trade of Africans, sugarcane, and rum in the Trans Atlantic slave trade for centuries.

Top to bottom: Having Dug Deep Beneath the Surface I Am The Foundation, Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island; Walk to Freedom, Frederick Douglass Church St, Lispenard St, NYC.

Then inspiration struck. Faustine would stand at these very locales in place for the people whose stories demanded be told, her body a statement of resistance that made visible a revelatory fragment of all that had been erased. She embarked on a journey into the past, traveling across New York City’s five boroughs and Long Island between 2012–2021 to create the new exhibition and monograph White Shoes.

The series brings together more than 40 self-portraits Faustine made in chronological order, beginning with Venus of Vlake Bos — the Dutch settlement founded in 1651, today known as Flatbush, Brooklyn, and home to Church Avenue African Burial Ground. Wearing only tiara, white gloves, and white shoes, Faustine begins a journey across time and space, staging tender tableaux of survival and resistance written in flesh, blood, and stone.

Top to bottom: Isabel Lefferts House, Brooklyn; Protection African Burial Ground Monument.

“I feel like it came from some place other than just me because it scared me though the project: not just the research, but the physicality of it, the vulnerability the placing my nude body in places like this,” says Faustine, who made these portraits in broad daylight in Central Park, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Harlem, and on Wall Street.

By standing on both sides of the camera, Faustine restores invisible histories to view, upending the utopian mythos that shrouds New York’s brutal role in the slave trade and relentless destruction of Black communities throughout the city while honouring all who stood in resistance, whether they perished or survived.

“I feel a great injustice done to the enslaved after the Civil War when the city tried to erase all of its connections to slavery. I’m trying to uncover history and give and give acknowledgment to these people,” she says. “It’s an honour and a privilege to create something that is changing the narrative. And I’m not alone. I’m part of a collective of artists, activists, historians, and scholars who have been on this path for a long time.”

Black Indian Andrew Williams Home Site, Seneca Village, Central Park

Nona Faustine: White Shoes is on view through July 7, 2024, at the Brooklyn Museum. The book is published by MACK.

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