Nona Faustine: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist

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I don’t believe life can be neatly broken down into categories of birth, death, sickness, and the unknown. Life is a complex and multifaceted journey, and the human experience is filled with nuances and uncertainties that cannot be easily categorized.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nona Faustine.

Nona Faustine is an award-winning photographer and visual artist whose conceptual photography evokes a critical understanding of history, identity, and representation by revealing underrepresented narratives throughout past and present history.

Faustine is a native New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn. She earned her BFA at the School of Visual Arts and is a graduate of the International Center of Photography at Bard College MFA program.

Faustine has been the recipient of many distinguished awards and honors. In 2019 she earned the New York Foundation Arts award in Photography, BRIC Colene Brown Art Prize, Anonymous Was A Woman Award, and was a finalist in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever Competition. Her work has been exhibited widely to an international audience including exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Houston Museum of Fine Art, Harvard University, Rutgers University, Maryland State University, Studio Museum of Harlem, Brooklyn Museum, Saint John’s Divine Cathedral, Tomie Ohtaki Institute in Brazil among others. In addition to exhibitions, Faustine frequently serves as a public speaker both independently and on panels. She travels around the country to colleges, universities, and museums giving lectures about her work. Prior speaking engagements include the National Gallery of Art, Harvard University, Princeton University, Schomburg Library for Black Research, Bucknell College, Berkeley University, Brooklyn Museum, Columbia University, Reed College, and many Others.

Faustine’s photographs are in the collection of MoMa, International Center of Photography, Los Angeles County Museum, Studio Museum of Harlem, Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Museum, North Dakota Museum, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minnesota, Colgate University Brandeis University at the Johnson Museum, Minnesota Institute of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Lumber Room in Portland, Oregon. Faustine will have her first solo museum exhibition in the Spring of 2024 at the Brooklyn Museum.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up? Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Both my Uncle Robert and my father were the family photographers. By the time I was four, they had me in front of the camera. My father would create these gorgeous family albums, truly capturing our own history — Christmas morning and other meaningful life events. This is when the significance of visual records started to become important to me, as they captured all the emotions and unspoken moments.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

This past year, I was part of a group show at the National Portrait Gallery. My work hung alongside artists I truly admire, such as Ketty Marshall and Elizabeth Catlett — two women whose work I greatly appreciate. At the opening, it was an honor to have Vice President Kamala Harris deliver a speech about the show. However, what has always intrigued me the most is the promise of tomorrow, and the future indeed looks rather bright.

The work I am doing with ‘A Moment in the Mountain’ is also an interesting chapter. Collaborating with individuals outside the art world who recognize the significance of my work, such as local hotelier Mahavir Patel, is crucial. It’s essential that people provide artists with opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations. Doing so in a smaller mountain town truly exemplifies a renaissance way of thinking. A Moment in the Mountains is a ground-breaking gathering of BIPOC female artists who are reclaiming their right to enjoy and explore their place in nature and are committed to sharing their stories, joys, and deeply profound experiences with others.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

My first solo show at the Brooklyn Museum — it’s like a dream come true.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Ten years after graduating from grad school, I still find my professors to be some of the most interesting and impactful people in my life. They truly prepared me for the road ahead and the challenges I would face.

I would also like to mention that photographing Faith Ringgold in her home was a highlight. I had just graduated from school when I was commissioned to shoot her. She is the trailblazer who paved the way for fair representation of black female artists in American institutions. After the shoot, I had the opportunity to sit down with her and hear some amazing stories from her life.

Engaging in conversations with the women also -participating in A moment in the Mountain has been a real gift: Renée Cox is a particularly inspiring experience. Her bold and provocative artistry has paved the way for redefining norms and challenging societal expectations. Our discussions were not only intellectually stimulating but also creatively invigorating. Her insights into the intersection of art, race, and identity were eye-opening and encouraged me to further explore the power of visual narratives in addressing social issues. Justine’s approach and representation of femininity and the power it holds i truly appreciate and honor her for that. Pamela and her passion, her ability to see the connections in life and the representation and implications of with society also challenge me to alway look closer, listen more intently.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

My inspiration is New York. It’s one of the oldest cities, with a history often unbeknownst to many who live here. The collision of countless cultures and the wealth of knowledge and experiences it offers are truly remarkable. New York dares you to dream big and is home to some of the greatest cultural institutions in the country, which are increasingly recognizing past errors regarding equality. On the whole, New York is where so much begins. We are a city that values artists and understands the healing and awesome power of art and its impact.

In my research, I have delved into history and the stories of individuals like Delia and Sara Bartman, known as the ‘Venus Hottentot.’ These women were put on display, and even in death, their humanity was stripped away. Their legacies, overshadowed by the shadows of history, found a voice through my photography — a visual testament to their existence and the countless others who suffered. These narratives fuel my creative fire, serving as a reminder of the importance of giving a voice to those silenced by history. The scars of the past still linger, and through my art, I strive to honor the memory of those who endured and to illuminate the shared humanity that binds us all.

When it comes to using my success to bring goodness to the world, I believe in making the work and doing the work. I’ve had the privilege to collaborate with public libraries and institutions like the Museum of the City of New York. My work is introspective, encouraging us to reflect on how we view our shared history

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 . I don’t believe life can be neatly broken down into categories of birth, death, sickness, and the unknown. Life is a complex and multifaceted journey, and the human experience is filled with nuances and uncertainties that cannot be easily categorized.

In my own life, I have come to value truth, knowledge, and facts above all else. Understanding the reality of my circumstances as a black female artist was crucial. It meant acknowledging that I might have fewer opportunities than my white contemporaries due to systemic biases and historical inequalities in the art world. This awareness allowed me to navigate my path with a clear understanding of the challenges I might face.

Life is unpredictable, and we must be prepared for the unexpected. People do experience illness, and unfortunately, we all eventually face mortality. However, it’s not just about accepting these inevitable aspects of life but also about using our knowledge and awareness to make the most of the time we have. It’s about striving for equity and justice, breaking down barriers, and creating a more inclusive and compassionate world.

Embracing the unknown can be daunting, but it also offers opportunities for growth and resilience. We can learn to adapt, to find strength in adversity, and to champion positive change. Ultimately, life’s complexity lies in its unpredictability, and our response to it is what defines our journey.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to inspire more people of color to visit our national parks and explore the themes that run through the civil rights movement. My goal is to bridge the great divide in our country, and I believe that art serves as a powerful healer, providing a meeting place for raw expression. This is why we were thrilled to collaborate with Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Coming from the New York art world, I sometimes forget that a passionate artist doesn’t have to exhibit at the Armory. What the school offers in terms of courses, instruction, mentoring, and fostering a supportive environment for all is truly commendable. I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for Trudy and all the work she does at the school.

I’d also like to acknowledge Antoine Fletcher, a ranger with the National Park Service, who has initiated the ‘African American Experiences in the Smokies Project.’ This project documents African American history in the park, and I will be connecting with Antoine on his podcast ‘Smoky Signals’ later this month. It’s important to recognize that when people talk about the environment, they often refer to the world outside of their own realities. The truth is, we are all a part of the environment, and it requires our care and attention.”

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Nona Faustine: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.