Nude except for a pair of white pumps, Nona Faustine climbs the steps of the Tweed Courthouse in her 2013 photograph “Over My Dead Body.” The courthouse was built over the site of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, and as Faustine ascends its mountainous stairs, she holds a pair of shackles. The courthouse’s columns and three shut doors at the top wait for her. From her stance, though, it seems that the hostility of the architecture is not going to prevent her from accomplishing what she needs to accomplish.
Faustine’s photography disrupts the idealized version of the American collective memory. It draws attention to gaps in history and the need to seek out narratives that might otherwise be forgotten. It asserts the place of the black body within this memory. Through self-portraiture, Faustine continually interrogates sites where history, specifically African-American history, as she put it, “is often overlooked.”
Faustine’s work can be seen in a solo show, “Making Them Known: Nona Faustine,” which runs at Artspace at 50 Orange St. until Sept. 9. Alongside her show are the works of 14 New Haven public high school students who took part in Artspace’s 17th annual Summer Apprenticeship Program. For three weeks in July, Faustine headed up the program, guiding the students through exercises, introducing them to artists, and seeking to show the range of possibilities of image-making.
Faustine was brought in to be the apprenticeship program’s lead artist by Artspace curator Sarah Fritchey. Noting the importance of social justice in her curatorial practice, Fritchey said Faustine seemed to be the perfect lead artist for this year’s apprenticeship. She highlighted Faustine’s “zest for life,” a vivaciousness that Fritchey characterized as “something that becomes infectious.”
“Making Them Known” features work from two of Faustine’s most recent series, “My Country” and “White Shoes.” In “My Country,” she levels a single black bar across iconic American landmarks, including the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial. For Faustine, these are places with embedded histories that often become buried due to their iconic status. The obscuring, blurry bar dramatically changes the experience of viewing each work. The bar evokes the confinement of a prison cell.
In “White Shoes,” Faustine places her own nude body in historic sites of slavery across New York City. Faustine said that, though not often thought of as such, New York City was invested in the slave trade in ways comparable to the antebellum American South. A slave auction block once stood in the center of Wall Street. Another site in lower Manhattan was designated an African burial ground. By putting herself there, Faustine claims ownership of these spaces of historical trauma. By inserting her own black body where the presence of the black body has largely been paved over, she reopens New York City’s history of involvement in slavery to the public eye.
Faustine’s focus on her self and her identity in proximity to her nation affected the work of her students. In the three weeks of the Summer Apprenticeship Program, she introduced her students to different artists and moved them through a series of artistic exercises, looking to show them “how photography can be used to express feelings.” She toured the students around New Haven, bringing them to sites of embedded history like those she uncovers in “White Shoes.” These field trips included visits to the Grove Street Cemetery, the Amistad Memorial, and the New Haven County Courthouse.
“Their work is the reality of their lives in New Haven,” Faustine said of her students.
Faustine pointed out one work by student Phoenix Taylor, a photograph of a mammy bank standing before one of the courthouse’s two seated stone allegorical figures. Taylor’s mother had salvaged the bank, which falls into a broad history of black caricatures and stereotypes, from a flea market so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Evoking David and Goliath, the bank’s figure stares upward with her hands on her hips at the representation of the American court system with defiance, “demanding justice for centuries of mischaracterization of the black female,” said Faustine.
Benie N’Sumbu’s self-portraits depict her own struggle dealing with the stifling effects of Americanization on one’s native culture. A series of three photographs, titled “Between the Two,” shows Benie first with a wet American flag draped across her face, contouring to her skin and suffocating her. In the next, she is removing the flag with one hand. In the final photo, she is standing tall with her profile facing the camera, an African headscarf tied around her head, exhibiting triumph or at least contentment.
The apprentice program “made me realize that where I took photos I had to do research,” said N’Sumbu.
Michael Jimenez, whose work tells stories ranging from his brother’s failed attempts at cooking to his father’s absence, didn’t notice much of a shift in his photography. Instead, he focused on the knowledge he gained from the program. “It didn’t get better,” he said of his work, “but I learned that photography is infinite.”
And Daniel Ramirez, another student, wrote in a gallery note near his work that the apprenticeship revealed to him more about New Haven than he had ever learned in the classroom: “The series encompasses how I see New Haven,” he wrote, “my home, the place I will always come back to.”
The title of the show — “Masturbatory Delusions” — comes from a quote from James Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name in the Street: “For intellectual activity, according to me, is, and must be, disinterested — the truth is a two-edged sword — and if one is not willing to be pierced by that sword, even to the extreme of dying on it, then all of one’s intellectual activity is a masturbatory delusion and a wicked and dangerous fraud.”
Though quite an intimidating title for any show, the title is one that the students believed “represented the times in which we live,” Faustine said. It certainly matches the caliber of work shown, and the depth of research and care every student took.
Faustine remarked on the effect the program has had on her own work. Her students invigorated her own practice with their ideas and energy, she said, and she found herself continually impressed with their work, dedication, and stories.
“They have given me so much,” she said.