Nona Faustine was four when she first laid hands on a camera. She watched as her uncle, an amateur photographer, showed her how to load the film and work the flash, and then she took her first picture, a photograph of her mother holding her baby sister in her arms.
Decades later the same themes of identity, history and legacy still run through her work. Last week, Faustine’s solo show, My Country debuted in New York. Building on the huge success of her last exhibition, White Shoes, it marked the return of her poignant and arresting photo series.
Often featuring her own naked body against the backdrop of infamous New York landmarks, like the steps of the Supreme Court, Faustine’s images are haunting and powerful, and her raison d'etre is twofold. Moving up in the art world – she graduated from the International Center of Photography at Bard College in 2013 – she was always struck by the comparative lack of black women in art, both as the subject, or the artist.
“Women who have figures like mine have not been depicted in photography and art a lot”, she explains. “Certainly not women of my complexion”. An avid reader, Faustine turned to books to learn about the history of the African-American woman, the history that she hadn’t been taught at school, and that wasn’t reflected in the art she was seeing around her.
And then, there was her city. Faustine was born and raised in Brooklyn, now she’s a mother to an eight-year-old girl. In that time she’s watched New York shift. “The predominantly black neighbourhoods which felt like these little villages” of her youth, are now replaced with an alternative narrative around, “new shops and four dollar coffees”.
“At the base of the problem with America is her early history and the ideology of race and racism. We have to start there, we have to uncover the truth” – Nona Faustine
Reminiscing about her postgrad course and the beginnings of her solo work, she tells me it was, “the perfect time in my life, where I really began to find myself. I was in this program that was very inspiring to me. I was with a group of people who challenged me and I admired their knowledge. I always wanted to create a very powerful piece of work.”
White Shoes was that “powerful piece of work”, and My Country is the next instalment. Whether it’s the image of Faustine on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, completely naked apart from a thin, transparent veil blowing across her body, or the photo of Washington Monument, with a sinister strip darkened and obscured, Faustine's work is full of messages. “It’s about the past and the present, about myself as a black woman, about the history of photography, the history of the black body in art,” she explains to me the day after her show.
Faustine injects new meanings into historic sites that are already laden with ideology. She takes historical signifiers of power and freedom, buildings like the Statue of Liberty, and forces the viewer to see them differently. The alternative history of Faustine's work forces us to confront is a reminder of the injustice African-American’s suffered at the hands of colonial rule. It’s a dangerous warning of just how easy it is to erase history from our collective memory. It’s also a message of hope. Through her work, she’s reclaiming her body and her city.
The day after the New York opening of My Country at Baxter St Gallery, we spoke to her about discovering her identity and why she’s a total Michelle Obama fan girl...
What kind of response did the My Country show get?
Nona Faustine: People were amazed at the different sites and what they were. The Bus Depot in Harlem was the site of an old “Negro Burial Ground”. They loved “Say My Name”, the image of me lying on the American flag in my home as if I was dead. It was in tribute to the women killed by police brutality like Sandra Bland.
How did you go about discovering the former sites?
Nona Faustine: I read about history a lot, New York history in particular. I just came upon this information in my reading.
Buildings like Washington Monument and The Statue of Liberty are so widely seen and so ingrained in people’s consciousness, is it difficult to show another history?
Nona Faustine: That was, in part, the challenge. But once I had photographed the Statue of Liberty with the frame of the window on the ferry – which cut across the pedestal – I knew I wanted to attempt that when I went to Washington. I wanted to create what I call conceptual abstraction again. I wanted to add a new meaning in some kind of way.
In what way have you moved on from White Shoes with My Country?
Nona Faustine: There are so many things running through White Shoes about the past and the present, about myself as a black woman, about the history of photography, the history of the black body and art. There's a history of slavery in New York City. I feel like these new images give a rounder picture, historically, of what I’m talking about within White Shoes. These great men, the ‘founding fathers’, I feel like their legacy is kind of being.. I don't want to say ‘revised’, but people are starting to question it. They’re discussing it in detail and finding out about who they really were, we’re questioning the myths that have been fed to the American people.
Do you think people are starting to educate themselves more in terms of discussing slavery and the real beginnings of America?
Nona Faustine: Absolutely, because at the base of the problem with America is her early history and the ideology of race and racism. We have to start there, we have to uncover the truth. Why do we have such low opinions, historically, about black people? I think at the heart of it, we need to understand that all of this was formulated to put down people of colour, to put down African people so that our contributions to the history could never be known. It perpetuates this myth about who African people and African descendants are. There is a myth of perceived inferiority.
For me, once I discovered that all these African-Americans fought at Concord, Massachusetts and Lexington – that was like, wow! Phillis Wheatly was the first African-American poet, and she was enslaved, but it was recognised that she was a prodigy. She was writing to Washington about liberty and how she admired him – and to keep fighting. All the while knowing that she was enslaved and taken from Africa. It's there and it's fascinating. The history made me so proud.
I think for African-Americans there is still a kind of shame, so it's important to learn that for 200, 300 years, the duration of slavery in America, there was constantly resistance. There were slave rebellions, people were always fighting. You had people like Frederik Douglass who were rallying over and over. Harriet Tubman – that lady was a fucking superhero! She'd go back and forth, she made about 350 trips to the Deep South to sneak people out. They had posters with her image on it, agents out to find her. But this little 5ft something woman would come in disguise – she'd be an old lady some time – and evade capture.
We gained freedom because the resistance was too much to maintain. We weren't complacent until Lincoln decided out of the goodness of his heart to free us. It didn't go down like that!
“I think for African-Americans there is still a kind of shame, so it's important to learn that for 200, 300 years, the duration of slavery in America, there was constantly resistance” – Nona Faustine
You’ve continued to use your body in a lot of the images, why your body, and was it daunting?
Nona Faustine: If you’d have told me that I would have done this kind of work a few years ago, I would have laughed, and I would not have been able to do it. It's terrifying I must say, but the more I get out and do it, the more the fear dissipates. The adrenaline is pumping so hard, that even in 18-degree weather in the winter, I won’t feel it.
After the birth of my daughter, I felt very liberated as a woman. I was strong for myself. I couldn't put anyone else up there; it felt like I would be exploiting them – if you can't do it, you can't ask someone else to. Also, it's a celebration for me about my status as a woman, my status as a mother, my body, being very defiant in showing that and wanting to celebrate that for myself.
My absolute belief was that I wanted to pay homage to the enslaved people who built New York City. That was the heart and soul of it, having known all that history, knowing these sites and knowing that there was so much more. I had this great question about why – why was this history covered up? Yes we know slavery was bad, we know it was horrific and that there was a lot of shame after the fact, but New York City, in particular, went to such great lengths to cover up the fact that there was ten to 15,000 bodies buried underneath lower Manhattan. They lay at the feet of the New York Supreme Court. That part really made me do it, I needed to pay homage to those people.
What's the best thing about being a black woman in America right now?
Nona Faustine: Michelle Obama is a perfect example of what it’s like to be an African-American woman today. She's flawless! She's so educated and down to earth, she's not elitist, she takes pride in her children and her husband and she's able to speak in a way that reaches the people.
It’s an incredible time to be a black woman in America. I think people are recognising our strength and our contribution. People are beginning to listen to what we have to say, how we've been here, doing this for 250 years. I feel like anything is possible. It's a horrific time with killings and police brutality and everything else, but it's mobilised this kind of activism. We are looking at who we are, how to charter the water in this new age. How to take care of ourselves and look after our mental health.
We're writing a new script for future generations. I constantly feel that when I look at my daughter. She was born when Obama took office. She's grown up in a whole different world with the possibilities of who she can be and who she can become. I didn’t have that when I grew up, I'm excited about the future.
Nona Faustine’s My Country runs at Baxter St Gallery in New York until 14 January 2017