Just a couple of days after the USA celebrated its Independence Day, we came across a project by an African-American artist which remembers the heinous crimes of slavery where the African ancestors of many Americans was snatched away.

The “White Shoes” series is Nona Faustine’s latest work and depicts her naked in some of New York’s landmark sites, interacting with the hidden history of the city.

“As a time traveler I’m very invested in the past and our future. I see myself, the people who built this city and country as one. They deserve so much recognition for their sacrifice and contributions, something that is still being denied them,” she told Dodge & Burn.

“She gave all she could give and they still ask for more”. Photo: Nona Faustine, 2014
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“Judgement Day”. 60 Supreme Court, New York City. Photo: Nona Faustine
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“They Tagged The Land With Institutions And Trophies From Their Conquests And Rapes!” New York City Hall. Photo: Nona Faustine
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“Like A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into The Patriarchy”, 2012. Photo: Nona Faustine

The name of the series refers to the white high-heeled shoes she wears in each of the portraits which she said are “…symbolic of the white patriarchy that we cannot escape”.

The female body, specifically the black one, has for a long time been surrounded by the socio-politics of the time. This body of work is largely inspired by the objectification of Saartjie Baartman in the early 19th century. Baartman gained popularity and curiosity from Europeans unaccustomed to her large buttocks and subsequently named her ‘The Hottentot Venus’, a “freak” exhibited in London’s Picadilly Circus. In May this year, a number of black women in San Francisco went naked to protest the violence on black women and girls in the US.

A bold piece of work but the sheer magnitude of what she attempted to do did not go unnoticed to her.

“It is an amazing, terrifying and exhilarating sensation! I always get a little sick before with my stomach doing back flips and somersaults. Being nude in public is one of the most emotional, vulnerable states of being you will ever experience,” she said.

“New York is remarkable in that very little phases us. In that span of time people are walking by, sometimes cars are passing me, like at Wall Street. I was stuck in the middle of the intersection standing on a block of wood as the stoplight changed. Cars and taxis passed me by while I completely naked”

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“Even The Comfort of a Stone Would Be A Gain”, Atlantic Coast, Brooklyn: Photo: Nona Faustine
“Of My Body I Will Make Monuments In Your Honor”, (Brooklyn Dutch Colonial Cemetery Where 3 Slaves Are Buried). Photo: Nona Faustine
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“Over My Dead Body”, New York City Hall. Photo: Nona Faustine
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“From Her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth”, Wall Street, New York. Photo: Nona Faustine

Slavery is still a painful subject for African Americans. It’s uncomfortable and many people avoid the subject completely.

“Slavery is controversial. It’s a topic in America we really try hard not to discuss. It makes people uncomfortable. You see the change that comes over their faces when you mention it, and the role it plays in our damaged psyche. Just the fact that I’ve been told not to talk about the inspiration regarding the project tells me all I need to know”, she said.

“The other controversy I would say is my fat, Black, naked, female body on display. People often don’t like seeing that because it conjures up a lot of emotional baggage for some. The two topics together omit the work in certain circles.”

Indeed, one can already imagine tea-sipping conservatives berating Faustine for the crudeness of her content and perhaps suggesting alternative ways of engaging with the subject of slavery. But considering the images we have seen of the impact of slavery on the black body in photography, illustrations and film, there can be no polite way to engage with such a sordid history.