Nona Faustine unpacks the dark and hidden history of Wall structure Street

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This informative article is printed in the most recent issue of British Log of Photography magazine, Activism & Protest, delivered immediate to you with an 1854 Subscription.

In her new book, titled White Shoes, Faustine photographs herself at Nyc locations tied to the history of the slave trade, including former African burial grounds

Wall structure Street is famous the world over for its financial markets. Home to two of the biggest stock exchanges, it has turn out to be synonymous with the cut-throat excess depicted in films such as The Wolf of Walls Street and Wall Street . What is less well-known is that through 1711 to 1762, Wall structure Street was the site of a slave market where enslaved Africans and Native Americans might be bought and hired. Because US artist Nona Faustine puts it: “Human beings were the first commodity of the finest finance capital in the world. ”

Faustine knows all about this particular hidden history and brought it to life with a 2013 image titled ‘From The girl Body Sprang Their Finest Wealth’. The work depicts the girl standing in the middle of Wall Road on an upturned wooden package emblematic of an auction block, naked other than a pair of whitened high heels and shackles on her wrists. The photograph is certainly part of her series Whitened Shoes , a journey through New York’s repressive past that she worked on for nearly ten years.  

© Nona Faustine, courtesy of Mack Books.

Faustine was born and raised in Nyc and has long been fascinated by its past. White Shoes began in 1991 when a construction dig in lower Manhattan revealed centuries-old human remains. “I was walking house to Brooklyn, and I saw them excavating, ” the lady says. “It turned out this was the largest cemetery of Africans enslaved in North America actually found. Around 15–20, 000 bodies were buried in what, in colonial times, has been known as the African Burial Ground. ”

The find produced an enormous outcry. “It put the cover off what we’d learned at college, ” says Faustine, “that New York didn’t have much slavery, and we freed our slaves much earlier than the rest of the country. ” In reality, Ny was once a centre associated with slave trading. Residents kept people enslaved until 1827; as Faustine points out, these were instrumental in building the town and its wealth.  

© Nona Faustine, courtesy of Mack Books.

© Nona Faustine, courtesy of Mack Books.

In White Shoes and boots , Faustine photographs herself at areas tied to this terrible background, including former African funeral grounds. The project also includes an image in Flatbush, an area in which one-third from the total population were once enslaved. Another is used at Van Cortlandt House, the Bronx, which was built-in 1748 by enslaved people and stood on a whole wheat plantation. Faustine gradually acquires more clothes as the series continues but wears the particular white high heels throughout – an accessory with many connotations.  

Readings of Faustine’s work often reference ghosts or spectres. Even though artist understands why, the girl politely rejects this meaning. The series is about her, she says, a living, breathing woman who is free, unlike the people who preceded the girl: enslaved individuals denied their own freedom and humanity, offered as though they were commodities. Whitened Shoes aims to reclaim that humanity. It’s a means “to make the past present”.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelancer journalist who contributes to books such as The Guardian, The Viewer, The FT Weekend Journal, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Mag. Prior to going freelance, she published and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions to get institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Celebration. You can follow her on instagram @dismy

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