Nona Faustine: An Artist’s Duty. . .

I asked Ms. Faustine what role she thinks an artist has in society – especially in these tense times.

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Good question, it’s one that we are still discussing, each generation has to answer that for themselves. I’m from the Nina Simone school of thought she put it so eloquently and beautifully. “An artist’s duty to which as far as I’m concerned is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptures, poets, musicians; it’s their choice but I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty, at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate when everyday is a matter of survival. I don’t think you can help but be involved… I don’t think you have a choice how can you be an artist and not reflect the times. That to me is the definition of an artist.”

Nona Faustine: History and the Black Body

Nona Faustine’s piece Like a Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her into the Patriarchy symbolizes slave ships arriving on Brooklyn’s shores, a story rarely told. Here she writes about art being reflective of history: whose stories continue to be left out?

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Whose bodies matter and why and by that I mean who is being most represented and seen, whose stories are being told over and over again? Through whose eyes are we looking at history and what does that mean? How does photography reflect the history of the black body and what is that history? What is my place within that? How do you make interpretations of the world with what you’ve been given? As Americans who are we really? How did we get to this place and time? The fallout from all of that history still haunts us, its impact dominates and in many cases dictates our lives. 

Nona Faustine: Racism is . . .

Nona Faustine marches up the steps of the Tweed Courthouse, built on top of what was part of the African Burial Ground, in New York City; this photo is titled Over My Dead Body.

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Racism in the United States is a cancer that has infected every segment of our culture and society for too long. Institutionally and structurally operating on all levels and highly adaptive, you see its devastating effects on a daily basis. To be fully proficient it demands that a large segment of our society denies its existence and denies, at least publicly, that they are indoctrinated, that the disparities and inequalities we see in our society are simply due to some lack of accountability, ambition, and inferiority, in one’s self or group of people that it affects. You wonder if there will ever come a day in this country when racism won’t be so prevalent. What is most distressing is the thought of how one’s life as an African American with Native blood would be different if racism didn’t exist.

 

Nona Faustine on History, Memory, and Trauma

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The opportunity to explore little known aspects of the role of Africans and Native people in the Revolution, it’s absolutely dynamic! At this time in my creative work explores history and memory and trauma. American History is so much more than what we have been taught in school and that is such a tragedy to me, particularly the contributions and sacrifices of African and Native people whom without there would be no America. We need desperately to change that.

Nona Faustine Confronts History through Portraiture

Self-portraiture allows me to respond to those images of people who were put on display as examples of inferiority, politicized black bodies in the early history of photography. Images made long ago and ideas perpetuated even now.

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I document myself in places where the history becomes tangible. Acting like a conduit or receptor, in both protest and solidarity, with people whose names have been forgotten and whose contributions remain unacknowledged. Conjuring past memories embedded in the land. The resulting images are both historical and anti-historical, as they pose questions to which the answers have been violently denied.

The figurative and literal weight of the black female body, the role it plays in Western society, and the canon of art history, reconstructing a narrative of race, memory, and time that delve into, stereotypes, folklore and anthropology, and family lineage. These are meditative reflections of a history Americans have not come to terms with, challenging the duality of what is both visible and invisible.

Meeting Nona Faustine

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 7.42.29 PMThe first time I saw her work, I felt all of the air leave my lungs.

I had told a mutual friend that I was curating a new project called RACE AND REVOLUTION, with a view to stoke dialogue about racism from 250 years ago and racism of today.

He grabbed my phone so he could show me  NONA FAUSTINE‘s website.
The first piece I saw was her photo titled (above)  “From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth.”  I felt the ground give way beneath me. A nude body was laid bare in the midst of swirling New York City traffic. She had shackles on her wrists. All I wanted to do was slump down into a chair. Here was a woman in pain, shackled to the past, asking the world to, please, see her. Instead the world continues to spin.

The shackles referenced America’s history of slave ownership. She was standing, however, in modern day mid day New York City traffic, completely nude, which teed up the fact that freedom had not changed things. This connection to the past while confronting the present was precisely what I wanted to for my show. Nona’s work helped me articulate what I hadn’t be able yet been able to.

“Like a Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her into the Patriarchy” (pictured above). Nona’s body is draped over and blends into the rocks, making her seem more sculptural than human. It begs the viewer to remember the human bodies thrown off of ships during the Transatlantic Slave Trade,  the enslaved men  unloaded like human cargo at the Brooklyn slips, and the bodies lost at sea.

We may never know the stories of millions of individuals who experienced slavery or trauma, but it was precisely the imagery I wanted to for my show. By CONTRIBUTING we CAN and WILL create a new kind of conversation.