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The Complicated Legacies of America’s Monuments

Nona Faustine turns her own body into a monument in her latest show 'My Country.'

Nona Faustine, Land Of Freedom’s Heaven Defended Race, Lincoln Memorial 2016. Archival Pigment Print. 27 x 40 inches. All images courtesy of the artist.

A society immortalizes its history, achievements, and people by erecting monuments. In the United States, the Statue of Liberty, the National Air and Space Museum, and the statues dedicated to great men and the wars they fought—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—all stand for freedom. In a new solo exhibition of performance and photography titled My Country, the artist Nona Faustine turns her own body into a monument to be examined in relationship to America’s celebrated and memorialized triumphs.

“Freedom or the threat to freedom; obstruction and obstacles,” inspired the exhibition, Faustine says to The Creators Project. She says she made the work thinking of a series of questions: How do these monuments and icons define our lives, define us as a society, and a country? What is the meaning that we give to them? As the centuries pass, do the legacies they represent fade, becoming less relevant or accurate?

Nona Faustine, Lenapehoking, in the land of the Lenape, Borough Hall, 2016.

The exhibition on view at Baxter St at Camera Club of New York, features two bodies of work that provide possible answers to the artist’s questions. “The White Shoes series among many things is addressing a history of violence inflicted upon black women and those enslaved,” explains the artist. The photos feature Faustine wearing white shoes and completely nude standing in places that hold historical significance. Lenapehoking, in the land of the Lenape, sees the artist wearing a veil, standing before the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall. Negro Burial Ground, is a self-portrait of a shirtless Faustine in a white dress that matches her shoes. She stands outside of a bus depot in Harlem, which is the sight of the third known colonial era burial ground of free and enslaved African Americans in Manhattan. In Say Her Name, perhaps the most powerful image of the series, Faustine is seen laying on top of an American flag, in a dimly lit room. The artist says of the series, “It speaks to a lack of visual representation particularly of women who look like me in art and media. It also speaks to body politics and all that goes with bodies that are shaped like mine.”  

Nona Faustine, Fragment of Evidence, Statue Of Liberty, 2016.

“Examining the truth and the lives of the founding fathers,” was the primary concern to the artist. “The institution of slavery made America a superpower, along with that [came] a legacy of trauma for generations of Americans. The structure of that system and the racism required to sustain it breed such inequality on every level that we're still struggling to free ourselves from.” She says she is interested in how we discuss that, finding ways to heal as a people and a nation. When talking about race, she prompts the viewer to consider whose histories and legacies are preserved. She adds, “I hope that the images engage the viewer in conversation about those questions.”

The other series of photographs are landscapes of national monuments—Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Capitol Hill, Washington Monument—that feature what the artist calls “obstructions.” Black lines cuts through a picture taken inside the Lincoln Memorial titled, Land Of Freedom’s Heaven Defended Race. Smokiness casts a shadow above the reflecting pool at the base of the Washington Monument in Liberty or Death, Sons of Africa. The darkness that fills the frames of Faustine pictures illicit that both the remembered and forgotten forefathers of America “passed down incredible legacies.” For Faustine, these legacies mean that “Our inheritance is not only a right to freedom but a responsibility to make the world better for future generations and that our voices enrich and contribute to this country.”

Nona Faustine, Negro Burial Ground, MTA Bus Depot Harlem, NYC, 2016.

My Country continues through January 14 at Baxter St at CCNY. Click here, for more information.

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