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Nona Faustine, “From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth,” Wall Street, New York (2013) (all images © Nona Faustine)

Recently the artist Nona Faustine kicked up some ruckus with her White Shoes photography series, which consists of images of the artist posing nude at former sites of slave trading in New York City. One principal site Faustine uses in the series is the location of the city’s first slave market. In the heart of the city’s Financial District, specifically on Wall Street between Water and Pearl Streets, a slave market, which was defined by a wooden structure with open sides and roughly a capacity of 50 people, bought and sold humans. It functioned until 1762.

For White Shoes, Faustine posed at several other locations, including the steps of Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers Street and the Supreme Court at 60 Centre Street. She relates that many slaves were buried in the grounds around where City Hall now stands.

In an image titled “From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth” (2013) Faustine stands on top of a small wooden box placed in the middle of a Financial District intersection, her hands clasped together in front of her belly, below her breasts, her head held level, wearing nothing but white shoes on her feet. This is powerful imagery, not the least because a naked, female body in that (bleak) landscape of abstracted wealth manipulation and fugitive natural light seems like an interruption, a rupture in its discourse of capital flows, a break in the professional and intellectual networks that weigh and measure worth and assign monetary value. Faustine concretizes that abstracted worth lost in the obscure language of financial transaction that allows us to obfuscate and ignore odious parts of our collective history.

Nona Faustine, “Of My Body I Will Make Monuments in Your Honor” (2014) is taken in a Dutch Pre-Revolutionary cemetery in Brooklyn where three slaves are buried among the settlers.

Faustine’s body does not readily participate in the popular market of heterosexual male desire where sex is a commodity: She is large, matronly, with a body that seems capable of strenuous physical labor, not lithe or winsome. This aspect of her physical presentation is an integral part of the piece, because she is saying something else with her naked body. Lucille Clifton’s poetry suggests what this may be. The following poem by Clifton, which is not titled, was published in the 1970s and clarifies for me what Faustine accomplishes with her self portraits. It’s worth considering the entire poem:

if i stand in my window
naked in my own house
and press my breasts
against the windowpane
like black birds pushing against glass
because i am somebody
in a New Thing

and if the man come to stop me
in my own house
naked in my own window
saying i have offended him
i have offended his

Gods

let him watch my black body
push against my own glass
let him discover self
let him run naked through the streets
crying
praying in tongues

There are some obvious contrasts with the image of the black woman in this poem, who stands her ground and stakes her claim to property ownership and middle-class membership. But her body is still (some 60 years and more later) radical, especially when it nakedly pushes against the glass that separates the domestic domain from the public social one. Faustine breaks that glass by similarly declaring that she is some body in a new thing, a new dispensation of political and social awareness that makes patriarchal white supremacy (once quite safe and secure in its abstraction of black bodies as property) have continual moments of self discovery.

I know of no reported incidents of white man experiencing psychotic break to run through the streets naked, but there are many white men (as a stand in for patriarchy in general) losing their shit and responding violently over this relatively new social order. Faustine points to this new thing, this new social order in which the being of black women is no longer circumscribed by the sphere of domestic action. They are activists, judges, CEOs, artists, and sometimes oracles who remind us that our financial systems are founded in blood.

Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The American Age. His...

10 replies on “An Artist Poses Nude at Former Slave Sites”

  1. I thought this was a good article until it turned into “outrage porn” with that link. The whole last paragraph jumped the shark. Otherwise, the writer makes a convincing case for this artist’s work.

    1. Yeah, because obviously racist and misogynistic responses towards black women should just be ignored, not addressed. No one should ever talk about it because it makes some white people feel kinda icky.

      1. Maybe you should read what I wrote again. The link, as outrage porn, is distracting from the content of the article and the artist’s work. It also dates the piece. The artist could use this in their CV but when it gets read years from now, it will feel “old” since the author tied it directly to a recent crime committed by a shit-kicking redneck in Florida rather than stay focused on the artist’s work.

    2. What you call “Outrage Porn” I call putting things in context. Slavery, Capitalism, White racism, KKK , Wall Street, White Murder, White Killers, White Justice, White Insecurity, White Skin Privileges,Black Music, Black Culture, its all linked because black people is been murdered every day for ALL those things by white AmeriKKKa. If the cold blooded murder and wounding of black kids minding their own business and playing their music by a white racists is just “Outrage Porn” to you then you need a head shake YT.

    1. Hey LetsEat,

      I asked the artist, but she never replied to me. I’m sorry I was unable to provide more information.

  2. Dear LetsEatPizza,
    I’m not sure. Let me see whether I can query the artist and get back to you.

  3. an interesting way to shed light on an important subject that is part of the fabric of American history and culture — slavery and capitalism. It’s certainly not the way most people would have chosen, but this artist to done it her way! The most publicized and ‘so-called’ artists in the modern age have done the same too, so more power to Nona for her bravery.

  4. Bravery comes to mind, not titillation as some responses infer. The idea, concept if you must, opens a new perspective on blood-money. Blood money flows today, its value measured in human suffering.

    The beacon Nona Faustine exhibits, is ancient in technique; the bravely naked human body has conquered national armies more than once. Today, it becomes salient once more. It is manifestly refreshing to see Nona’s massive fleshy, dark-brown body contrasted with the brilliant white shoes; she chose the cultural color of purity to interface where the true beauty of her intent meets the filth of the street.

    Your passion is applaudable Nona, it is a passion that only youth can muster and sustain. Having such a strong intent, it remains to be seen whether jot or tittle be moved, whether the floor of the Augean stables be revealed or this exhibit be cast aside by the “they say” folks.

    After all, Van Gogh believed in the greatness of small points brought together with purpose. You have the beginnings young lady, so let the rain fall where it will. Most of all, feed your passion, it will shield you from negative thoughts.

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