ar'n't I a woman: Interview with Nona Faustine
by Sarah Sunday
Sarah Sunday: Throughout your work, there’s a common theme of representation of black people and black women, as well as the representation of yourself as a person. How has your relationship with these images changed and developed over the years?
Nona: I don’t think that things have changed. I’ve definitely grown as an artist and as a photographer, and so have the kinds of stories that I want to tell, specifically through White Shoes. The theme of my relationship to the history of this country as a New Yorker and as an African American remains the same.
Sarah: A lot of your work deals with freedoms or freedoms denied; for example, a frequent motif in White Shoes is handcuffed. What is your own personal experience with freedom when creating your work?
Nona: I am an African American and a descendant of the enslaved people who built this country. Some people would say we’ve only really been free since the 1970s. As a person with that relationship to freedom and slavery, it is, of course, something that is very personal to me and something that, as an African American, I don’t take for granted. My ancestors resisted and fought over hundreds of years. Centuries. Because of them, that is something I honor.
Sarah: This series, White Shoes, confronts an issue of remembering or forgetting history. You said you wanted to explore the questions of, “Why should we remember?” and “Who benefits from forgetting?" Can you explain how these questions interact with your series?
Nona: Those who benefit from forgetting are the larger power structure; the majority of white Americans that are in charge of running this country. If you’re a white person in America, you don’t have to be reminded of African people’s history of because you are largely the ones in charge as the heads of institutions and businesses. This huge racial strife in America that is ever-present and ever-growing because we have not learned from our past. We have not acknowledged the past hurts and sins of slavery, of Jim Crow, and even of the civil rights movement. If you want to have true healing, we must acknowledge and discuss.
Sarah: With White Shoes, why the nudity?
Nona: The nudity is in solidarity with the way enslaved people were put on display as they went on auction blocks, but also the dehumanizing way that enslaved women were taken advantage of. There’s also another important part of celebrating and reclaiming the black body in art specifically. I knew the power of the black body, and specifically of my fleshy, large body. I also loved that, having become a mother shortly before I started this series. My daughter was about three and a half at the time. It was about acknowledging the pain, but also the beauty of my body, of a black woman’s body.
Sarah: With your project My Country, there is a possession that’s present in the title. While our country belongs to us, we also belong to it. Is that something you were going for?
Nona: Yes, I called it My Country because I’m a big fan of Glenn Ligon and his book America and looking at the conversation he was having within that book. But also we still are where many Americans feel that African Americans are not full citizens of this country. My people go back so many generations. It was a response to always being told, “Go back to Africa.” When I was growing up as a teenager, I was very patriotic and African Americans are some of the most patriotic Americans you will ever come across. We have immense pride in America, but we also are very invested in holding America to the idea upon which it is based.
Sarah: In the photographs, why is it that you have that dark bar present in the photographs?
Nona: For me, it was a conceptual tool. It was a way of inserting the African presence within those monuments. It was about the absence or the influence of African Americans within the making of the Statue of Liberty, which was given to us to commemorate the end of slavery. There’s all this hidden history of African Americans within those statues and part of that legacy that we don’t really teach or maybe don’t know. That black bar is what’s hidden in all of that history.
Sarah: How does risk factor into your work?
Nona: Risk is everything. It was a huge risk for me in both of the projects. My Country was a risk in a different way because I was not physically present in the work, but I was hoping that the power was still there. Also, in White Shoes the risk is everything. There’s a risk to my physical being. There’s the threat of arrest, being naked and vulnerable on the streets. The way society is today, women are often assaulted or killed, for little or nothing; just from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Putting myself out there in the middle of the intersection at Wall Street with ongoing traffic was a huge risk. Oftentimes I’m in cold weather of 18 degrees or 35 degrees with snow on the ground. There’s a lot of risks, but it’s about really connecting with the sites and showing the sites for what they are and hoping that people understand that.
Sarah: If you could convey one message through your photographs to the viewers, what would you want to say, but also, who would you most want to say it to?
Nona: The work is for everyone. The work is a love letter to black women. It is a love letter to New York. It’s about the trauma of America. I’m speaking to so many of my white brothers and sisters who are struggling to understand their African American brothers and sisters as well and what we’ve gone through and what our mothers and grandmothers and forefathers have got through in this country. I’m speaking to my daughter. It’s a personal biography as well. This particular time in New York City where gentrification is erasing so many places that we have built. It’s saying, “I was here.”
This interview has been condensed and edited. To see more of Nona Faustine’s work and to read the full interview, check out our latest issue RISK.