Galleries

When You Want to Be Part of the Nation, but It Won’t Let You In

What is a nation, and who gets to belong?

Nona Faustine, “Fragment of Evidence, Statue Of Liberty” (2016), archival pigment print, 27 x 40 inches (all photos courtesy of the artist)

Nona Faustine has titled her solo show at Baxter Street, Camera Club of New York, My Country. I thought about that and eventually realized that the phrase is stranger than it initially appears. For one, it takes an abstraction — a nation — and connects it by way of ownership to the concrete person of the speaker. And a nation is an abstraction that is treated as a state of being you are supposed to identify with, though you will never meet most of the people this term contains. Secondly, the ownership only ever really works in one direction. You tell the border guard when you show her your US passport that the United States of America is your country. This means that you belong to it. Unless you are a business or government oligarch who can manipulate the levers of state power, the country almost never belongs to you.

Nona Faustine, “Liberty or Death, Sons of Africa, Washington Monument” (2016), archival pigment print, 27 x 40 inches
Nona Faustine “Land Of Freedom’s Heaven Defended Race, Lincoln Memorial” (2016), archival pigment print, 27 x 40 inches

That’s the crux of the matter for this small show of photographs by an artist who has become well-known for her White Shoe series. This exhibition includes some photographs from that cycle, but introduces images of national monuments to emphasize Faustine’s relationship to the abstracted, storied, mythologized, idea that is the United States. In these images, we see the nation’s great symbols through bars. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty are all bisected by a looming dark line that you eventually realize is a strut from some fence or enclosure that puts us in the position as viewers of those, who like slaves, are enabled to see the promised land of freedom but are prevented from fully becoming part of this nation. Faustine makes this point evident by pulling back the focal point to reveal the dark, horizontal lines as bars constructed to keep “others” out and insiders in. The artist contends that the putatively “national” monument (that is supposed to be representative of the nation) is seen but never possessed by some, and particularly her access to it is restricted. But she is defiant.

Nona Faustine, “The Myths Of Our Country, White House” (2016), archival pigment print, 27 x 40 inches

In another photograph, Faustine stands before a figurative statue of George Washington, naked to the waist, one white shoe in her right hand, blown out by the sunlight reflecting off it, like a missile in flight. There’s a subtle threat to this image; as if she is contemplating launching the shoe at the effigy. But that held shoe is almost negated by another image in the exhibition, which the artist specifically requested not be shown with this article. In it, she lies on a table covered by a US flag in a domestic space, completely naked except for her shoes. A child watches from the foreground. It looks like surrender — as if she has decided to lay back against another set of bars — the ones that symbolically keep her out. Maybe you do this sometimes: just rest against the thing that has exhausted you and wait to catch your breath.

Nona Faustine “‘… a thirst for compleat freedom … had been her only motive for absconding.’ Oney Judge, Federal Hall NYC” (2016), archival pigment print, 27 x 40 inches

Nona Faustine’s My Country continues at Baxter Street, Camera Club of New York (126 Baxter Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 14.

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