There are many ways to remember slavery: You can leave tributes, as pilgrims do, at the slavers’ forts in west Africa, or tell the stories of slaves’ lives in books and on screen. Or, like artist Nona Faustine, you can pose naked but for a pair of white shoes at places around New York where slaves were once sold.
There are no more auction blocks, but the ghosts remain for Faustine at sites such as Wall Street where, between Water and Pearl Streets, a slave market operated in the 18th century. It is a chilling thought. But is that memory appropriately awakened by an artist standing nude on a box in the middle of the street?
The answer is yes. Faustine’s nudity is a graphic reminder of the vulnerability and powerlessness of slavery. More than that, in baring her flesh to history, she conveys the most fundamental horror of the slave trade, the way it reduced people to mere bodies, machines of muscle.