Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience

 

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Nona Faustine, They Tagged the Land With Trophies and Institutions From Their Conquests, New York City Hall.

Because of her use of blatant nudity, Nona Faustine’s artwork likely presents a challenge for the classroom teacher to show in most school settings. However, it would be a disservice not to discuss these striking images in the context of a Visual Culture Curriculum.

Western Culture has many taboos regarding the body as being a dirty, imperfect, and perverted subject. The truth is that the body is a powerful entity and there are many ways that we can contextualize poignant meanings from an artist’s use of the body in their work. 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.

Faustine’s nude photographs speak to the idea that the body can be empowering, beautiful, and vulnerable all at once. In a socio-cultural 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, the piece 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 until 1762, this exact location was the site of New York City’s first market where participants of the slave trade bought and sold 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 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 can learn about other people’s experiences, and be empowered to use our own cognitive and somatic knowledge to create art that responds to challenging ideas about race, gender, and other socio-political 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:

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