INTERSECTIONALITY IN THE STUDIO: Nona Faustine
Fig. 1: Nona Faustine, 72 Canal, Sojourner Truth, 2016, Archival Pigment print, 30 x 40 in. Courtesy the artist.
“I never seen nobody that looked like me up on that big screen,” was uttered by DaVine Joy Randolph Reeds’s character Lady Reed to Dolemite (played by Eddie Murphy) in the 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name. I uttered those same words to myself as I thought about what I wanted my art to do. Every time I walked into a museum in New York City, where I was born—or a museum anywhere for that matter— I never saw anyone who looked like me. There weren’t any representations of dark brown skin or fleshy, round, curvy bodies. More importantly there weren’t any woman of my socio-economic background. When I walk down the streets, I’m just another anonymous Black woman, and Ar’n’t I A Woman. When I walked into museums mostly the only brown faces I saw beside mine were the security guards. Black women like me were invisible in the art world.
In classes while pursuing my MFA at the International Center of Photography, I was visible, but I felt invisible. The work I wanted to make and cared about was deemed irrelevant. I was told by a fellow classmate that I didn’t belong there, that I was the dumbest in the class, and that I “devalued her degree by being in the program.” You will eat all of those words one day I thought.
Entering graduate school I was an unemployed, single mother with a toddler receiving public assistance. When employees at New York’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) found out I was in a MFA program they looked at me like I was crazy. “You can’t be on public assistance and be in a MFA program.” I sacrificed everything to pursue my degree. I took out huge student loans to pay tuition and to live. I was lucky enough to have a mother and a sister who believed in me; they pushed me to return to school and return to photography. “Get that degree woman.” “Don’t let your talent go to waste,” they told me. They took care of my daughter while I studied. My sister came with me during my photo shoots on the street. We were a two-woman team. She had my back while I stood in the streets of New York naked, vulnerable, and a little crazy. That memory makes tears come to my eyes. But, what about the women like me who don’t have any of that support? The women who don’t have a vehicle to express their joy, rage, anger, and sorrow?
When President Obama first took office in 2008, the dreams that we shared as a nation were dreams that I had for my newborn baby. I placed her on the bed near our analog television as Obama was sworn in at his Inauguration. I held my Nikon F camera loaded with black and white film, composed the picture, and clicked the shutter for posterity and for hope. In 2012 we still had a Black President in the White House; however, the slights, insults, mirco-agressions and full aggressions were increasing. The horrific events I was observing and absorbing around me weren’t being discussed in my graduate program. The deaths of black men and woman due to police brutality were racking up and only just beginning to gain attention in the media. The killing of Eric Garner in 2014 after I graduated would spotlight that, but only because we all witnessed the video of his public execution. They’ve been killing Black men and woman like that publicly since New York’s beginnings. The streets around Centre and Chambers Streets are filled with the ghosts of those early New Yorkers.
In 2012 while persevering in graduate school, despite outward hostility, I conceived of a photographic self-portraiture series White Shoes. It is a series of photographs taken at sites of slavery throughout New York City. The Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up in was hit by the ugly phenomenon of gentrification. Brown faces had begun to disappear and passengers exiting the familiar stops along the Q train were changing rapidly. My little family and neighbors were holding on, but for how long? I began to think of all those Black New Yorkers before us, the first ones with faces right out of Africa. Faces which I’d never seen, but for which looking in the mirror is the closest I could get to them. What of those human beings that came in chains, built the city, filled in the canals, streams and leveled the forests of Manhattan, built the roads, tilled the land, and died after being worked to death laying in unmarked graves now under buildings?
If there is still a city of New York in the future, will New Yorkers know that I existed? Will they know that me and mine were here? We were an integral cultural economic force of New York City, who breathed new life into the city after White Flight. We created new art forms on every level: fashion, dance, literature, music, film, performance, and the visual arts. We turned the trains into kinetic pieces of art, organized block parties, hooking up turntables with juice from the street light. “Let the music play” sang Shannon, into all night sessions of improvisation creating a new form of jazz. We helped to build this city again just as our black and white ancestors did before us.
Nona Faustine is an American photographer and visual artist, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Her work focuses on history, identity, representation, and what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.