This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.
In her new book, titled White Shoes, Faustine photographs herself at New York locations tied to the history of the slave trade, including former African burial grounds
Wall Street is famous the world over for its financial markets. Home to two of the largest stock exchanges, it has become synonymous with the cut-throat excess depicted in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Wall Street. What’s less well-known is that from 1711 to 1762, Wall Street was the site of a slave market where enslaved Africans and Native Americans could be bought and hired. As US artist Nona Faustine puts it: “Human beings were the first commodity of the greatest finance capital in the world.”
Faustine knows all about this hidden history and brought it to life with a 2013 image titled ‘From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth’. The work depicts her standing in the middle of Wall Street on an upturned wooden box emblematic of an auction block, naked other than a pair of white high heels and shackles on her wrists. The photograph is part of her series White Shoes, a journey through New York’s repressive past that she worked on for nearly a decade.
Faustine was born and raised in New York and has long been fascinated by its past. White Shoes began in 1991 when a construction dig in lower Manhattan revealed centuries-old human remains. “I was walking home to Brooklyn, and I saw them excavating,” she says. “It turned out this was the largest cemetery of Africans enslaved in North America ever found. Around 15–20,000 bodies were buried in what, in colonial times, was known as the African Burial Ground.”
The find generated an enormous outcry. “It threw the cover off what we’d learned at school,” says Faustine, “that New York didn’t have much slavery, and we freed our slaves much earlier than the rest of the country.” In reality, New York was once a centre of slave trading. Residents kept people enslaved until 1827; as Faustine points out, they were instrumental in building the city and its wealth.
In White Shoes, Faustine photographs herself at locations tied to this terrible history, including former African burial grounds. The project also includes an image in Flatbush, an area in which one-third of the total population were once enslaved. Another is taken at Van Cortlandt House, the Bronx, which was built in 1748 by enslaved people and stood on a wheat plantation. Faustine gradually acquires more clothes as the series continues but wears the white high heels throughout – an accessory with numerous connotations.
Readings of Faustine’s work often reference ghosts or spectres. Although the artist understands why, she politely rejects this interpretation. The series is about her, she says, a living, breathing woman who is free, unlike the people who preceded her: enslaved individuals denied their freedom and humanity, sold as though they were commodities. White Shoes aims to reclaim that humanity. It’s a way “to make the past present”.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy