Nona Faustine: White Shoes @Brooklyn Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 42 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against orange walls in a triangular gallery space on the fourth floor of the museum. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 2012 and 2021. The exhibit includes a map of some of the historical locations seen in the photographs. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a young photographer is just getting started, the idea that the project he or she has just begun could someday end up on the walls of a famous museum may seem like a hopelessly distant dream. And if we are honest, very, very few of these early artistic aspirations actually do find their way to the finish line at a notable public institution. Countless factors come into play, including whether the work itself ever coalesces and matures to the point of developing broader power and interest, whether it is appropriately supported and introduced to potential curators along the way, what other artists (and bodies of work) might be “competing” for the same possibly available exhibition slots, and the overall timing and atmosphere at the host institution, in terms of the kinds of work it is interested in showing at any given moment, as well as the practical constraints of calendars and gallery spaces.

Perhaps at various points over the past decade, it may not have felt like this dream would ever actually materialize for Nona Faustine, but her project “White Shoes” is an example of this circuitous and often opaque art world winnowing process actually working, and of a young photographer patiently building her way up from her MFA program to the halls of a solo show at a big museum (in this case, the Brooklyn Museum). I first came across “White Shoes” in 2016 at Smack Mellon, a non-profit exhibition space in DUMBO; it was Faustine’s first solo show (reviewed here), and it consisted of a total of ten photographs she had made while in the ICP/Bard MFA program (she graduated in 2013) and in the years after. Even then, it was already quite clear that “White Shoes” had the potential to be a powerhouse project, as it wrestled with the strength and vulnerability of a young Black woman posing naked (aside from the titular white shoes) at locations around the five boroughs of New York City that had particularly haunting and often forgotten historical significance for Black people – former slave markets, burial grounds, salve-owning farms and estates, the landing points of slave ships, and other places Faustine had rediscovered (or unearthed in her research) where the faint echoes of that dark history could still seemingly be seen and heard.

Faustine followed that first show up with a second solo effort in 2017 (reviewed here), this time at the non-profit Baxter St at CCNY space, where she added another handful of images to her now ongoing “White Shoes” project. At this point, the project started to gather even more momentum, in the subsequent years leading to inclusions in various group shows and a representation relationship with Higher Pictures (where she had a solo show of the series in 2018), a handsome monograph of the project published by MACK Books in 2021 (here, which extended the series to a total of 42 images), and soon afterward, a succinct portfolio of 20 prints from “White Shoes” shown in a solo booth at the 2022 Armory Show. This 2024 museum exhibit is in many ways the culmination of this methodical progression, featuring the entire 42 image set made over more than a decade.

Of course, this comprehensive exhibit reprises many of the early works from the project that I have seen multiple times at this point, but for the most part, their provocative power remains altogether undiluted.  As a discarded body washed up on a rocky Atlantic Coast jetty, Fasutine reoccupies the form of those long forgotten slaves who failed to survive the treacherous crossing and never reached the mainland. As a body pushing physically against the pillars of a downtown court house or standing on a box at a Wall Street intersection, Fuastine offers a sense of resistance to the institutions that failed to protect those like her and the economies that were built on their backs. And posed under the trees and in front of the slave cabins at various estates and manor houses and among the gravestones at local graveyards, Faustine reclaims those places for those that have been forgotten. In each case, she has used her own vulnerability as a bridge to confronting the past, her body inhabiting locations around the city and making the traumatic histories that reside their suddenly much more visible.

The photographs that Faustine has made in the “White Shoes” project since 2021 were essentially new to me, and so offered a window into how she has extended and developed the original ideas over time. Several of the images were made on Shelter Island, at the stately Sylvester manor house, with Faustine dressed in a 19th century petticoat dress and a floppy straw hat and posed in the gardens outside. Back in the 1650s, the first enslaved Africans were brought to Shelter Island, and later in the mid-1700s, the Sylvester house was the site of a large sugar plantation, with some 200 enslaved people. Faustine’s return honors those slaves, but the wide open back of her dress offers a darker symbolic motif, given that many of those same slaves were violently whipped on their exposed backs.

A second group of pictures finds Faustine staging herself in Central Park, at the former site of Seneca Village, which hosted the largest concentration of Black landowners in the city in the mid-1800s. In these photographs, Faustine plays more of a role, wearing Senegalese fabrics, having a tea party, and primly reading on a blanket, alluding to the sophisticated lives of those who were later displaced. And in yet another handful of images, Faustine dons a shiny gold cape-like costume, evoking an Afrofuturist Sun Ra-like spirit, who lands at various burial grounds and historical sites to touch, pray, and honor the ancestors to be found there. In contrast to the early images, in which Faustine’s naked body resonates with such raw exposure, these scenes pack less punch, the draped spirit figure seemingly less intimately connected to the artist as a specific individual.

What gives this project its durable resonance is that it grafts a personal artistic interpretation atop methodical historical research into the roughly 200 year history of slavery in New York City. Each image is a thoughtful and intentional reclaiming of that past (which has in many cases been literally paved over or otherwise deliberately forgotten), and an overt confrontation with its lasting legacies. In this way, Faustine has made herself a kind of artistic lightning rod, defiantly calling down the bolts of electricity at spots around town where the historical ghosts still linger. For the many New York museum goers who may not know their local history particularly well, Faustine’s project provides a joltingly relevant and intimate eye-opener. But it is her lone, often naked figure that they will likely remember, courageously standing exposed to commemorate the forgotten truths of history.

Collector’s POV: Nona Faustine is represented by Higher Pictures in New York (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, hung against white and black walls, in a series of three connected spaces (and their exterior walls) on the museum’s main floor. The ... Read on.

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