Due to the presentation of the nude body, Nona Faustine’s artwork might present a challenge for the classroom teacher to show in school settings. However, it would be a disservice not to discuss these striking images in the context of visual art and history curricula.
Western culture has many taboos regarding the body such as signifying it as being imperfect and perverse. This is especially pertinent in a mass media centered world, where we are fed hurtful ideas about body image, skin tones, and beauty through an overtly commercialized lens. However, the body is a beautiful and powerful entity that artists have utilized to express poignant sociocultural issues such as race, sex, and gender. Contemporary artworks involving the body, such as the work of Faustine, Clarissa Sligh (see: Jake in Transition), Mickalene Thomas, Fred Wilson, and Carrie Mae Weems, seek to shift the paradigm regarding how Western civilization (a society entrenched in patriarchal ideologies) views the bodies of marginalized groups.
Faustine’s nude photographs illuminate how the body can be empowering, beautiful, and vulnerable all at once. In a sociocultural context, Faustine’s work reveals the degradation of black and female bodies throughout Western Civilization. In her series White Shoes, Faustine presents herself naked within landscapes that are significant to New York City’s past history regarding slavery. For example, From her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, is situated in the middle of Wall Street, between Water and Pearl Streets. Today this location is the heart and soul of the financial market where stocks are traded daily, however, during the 18th century it was the site of New York City’s first markets where participants of the slave trade bought and sold black human beings. It wasn’t until very recently that this site was given a historical marker identifying its awful past. Most New Yorkers are unbeknownst to the fact that many of the most powerful establishments (like the Tweed Courthouse, which was built over a burial ground for slaves) they walk past daily were once significant of the city’s racist history.
Furthermore, by posing naked Faustine is making a connection between her own experiences being a black woman and the experiences of historical women who lived their lives in slavery. While researching the stories of women in slavery, a woman from South Caroline named Delia became her muse. Faustine recognized Delia’s image from a piece by the artist Carrie Mae Weems titled “From Here I Saw and Cried.” Delia first came into account publicly through mid-19th century photographs by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a proponent and leading figure in the practice of scientific racism. His theory was that races were created separate from each other and therefore were created unequally. In his portrait of Delia, she is portrayed with her breasts exposed and tearful. The use of Agassiz’s photographs was highly influential among a number of white men who used this theory to support the practice of enslaving black individuals. Another historical reference that was influential on Faustine’s series were the accounts of human zoos where displaced Africans were forced on display inside of cages for the public to view as if they were animals.
White Shoes offers lessons about the politics of gender and race, as well as the realization of parts of local history that have been largely removed from the contemporary urban discourse. Showing Faustine’s work in a diverse classroom environment (such is the case in New York City’s Public Schools) gives students a strong example of how artists create meaningful commentary about past and present cultural issues. It supports inquiry based learning where students can pursue a socio-cultural theme that has personal relevance to them. A whole curriculum can be designed in order to encourage students to develop an empathetic and emboldened understanding of the complex issues effecting their personal and collective cultural identity. Other important works of art, which comment on race and gender include Fred Wilson’s Grey Area (Brown version) (1993), Carrie Mae Weems’ Not Manet’s Type (1997), and Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, (2007). These artworks implore us to think about how society idealizes and characterizes body image based on race and gender.
By breaking free from stereotypes and challenging the status quo, we can embrace the inherent power our bodies have and utilize positive body images to alter the negative perception that has been unjustly given to the body in Western culture. Through visual art, we are able to learn about other people’s experiences, and feel empowered to use our own cognitive and somatic knowledge to create art that responds to challenging ideas about race, gender, and other intersectional identity issues.
Hear/watch Nona Faustine and artist, curator, and writer Jorge Alberto Perez discuss her work within a personal and collective cultural experience. The conversation below was filmed during her 2016 solo show White Shoes at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn: