Blog / Artist Interviews

Talking Back to Power: A Time of Future-Past

C. Rose Smith x Bindi Vora

POSTED: 11 June 2024

Artist C. Rose Smith discusses her work using photography and a simple cotton shirt to challenge the history of slave labour in the Southern United States

C. Rose Smith is an American visual artist examining the role of photography in constructing layers of identity and individuality. She engages fashion, site-specific locations, and elements gleaned from studio portraiture and nineteenth-century paintings to produce provocative, staged imagery critiquing social norms.

In this conversation, the artist speaks with senior curator Bindi Vora on the occasion of her first UK solo exhibition, Talking Back to Power, at Autograph in London. They discuss her new body of work, situated in plantations and homes in the Southern United States, which challenges violent histories to propose a reclamation of black visibility.

Bindi Vora (BV): Talking Back to Power is a very poignant yet powerful body of work – what was the catalyst for making this series and the purpose of the recurrent use of the white shirt we see in the photographs?

C. Rose Smith (CRS):
In titling the work, I wanted to emphasise the word power because the work grew out of a need to confront adverse power structures in the US, specifically patriarchal governance rooted in white supremacy. Thinking specifically about the way power and protest are represented through fashion and photography, I turned to the 2018 MA thesis of scholar and curator theo tyson. Her project, 'performing fashion: senseless acts of gender,’ critiqued identity construction and gender hierarchy through garments such as the white dress shirt and denim jeans. Using the garments as a subject of study on patriarchy, she asked queer-identifying models to wear them and to challenge the politics of identity. The photographs offered a range of portrayals, showing models ripping the garments, deconstructing the garments to fit their styles, and performing gender roles.

I responded to her thesis by turning the camera onto myself in my living room and choosing the white dress shirt as a point of examination. The shirt was a quiet, innocuous symbol of power indicative of coloniality, patriarchy, and respectability. In my images, I move between sitting and standing, and draping versus wearing the garment. By choosing a gender to identify with and perform, I gesture critiques of its construction and magnify my own plight.

In the mid-1800s, detachable white collars, cuffs, and later white shirts were produced in the former textile mills of New England and Troy, New York. The pieces were made of cotton fabric, with fibres handpicked by enslaved people, and worn by men in various positions of power. Serving as a political statement on the history of cotton, slavery, and identity construction, I expanded my engagement with the shirt and brought it forward to wear at former cotton plantations and homes of trade merchants across the Southeastern states. Presently, living in the long shadow of slavery, my photographs serve to redress and reclaim Black identity.

The protests of 2020 also lit a fire within me to begin this site-specific series. The incidents of police brutality spurred a national uproar on systemic racism in my country, which led to demonstrators calling for the removal of statues depicting supporters of slavery. In light of these events, my plan of action was to use my art as a silent protest.

Untitled no. 90, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, TN

Untitled no. 82, Joseph Aiken House, Charleston, SC

BV: The surge of activity in 2020 was courageous, there were many parallels to what you witnessed in the UK too. It really became a catalyst for how communities and individuals wanted to use their power to affect change. The works are primarily made in locations that are particularly resonant with the Southern United States of America, would you be able to share why you chose these particular sites?

The sites pictured in my photographs are located in states formerly known as ‘slave-holding states’ during the nineteenth century. They are examples of the largest plantation homes built before the US Civil War (a war between the Northern and Southern states of America on reunifying the regions and abolishing slavery) and were often built by enslaved women and men belonging to the plantation or those on plantations nearby. Many of the homes were also located near cotton brokerage firms, which sourced cotton and assessed market conditions. The homeowners were members of firms that later became cotton exchanges and private social clubs, welcoming and defining the men of power in Southern society.

One site in particular, shown in my image, Untitled no. 86, St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease, served as a place of worship, gathering, and building community among the enslaved. It was also a space where they strategised acts of reform and rebellion. They built this structure using oyster shells and limestone located along the island. I was drawn to the beauty of the location as it speaks to the ingenuity and vision of Black people. I imagined the appeal of the church being used as a tool for distraction, diverting the attention of the enslaver away as the enslaved galvanised for protest.

The archive has offered me a place to probe history and make sense of the present. The idea of looking back to go forward... keeps me aware of the social climate, especially when history appears to be repeating itself.

BV: Your work pieces together disparate stories that encompass generational histories and traumas, using archival imagery and documents as both context and material. Can you expand on why the role of the archive is pivotal in your research?

The archive has offered me a place to probe history and make sense of the present. The idea of looking back to go forward helps me identify linkages between people, places and objects, and keeps me aware of the social climate, especially when history appears to be repeating itself.

Archives are educational and essential to my research because they offer a truth. I use physical and digital archives containing photographs, oral histories, and written materials. For this series, I visited the Library of Congress archives to engage with interviews from people formerly enslaved on cotton plantations. Through these records, they share their experiences and reflect upon receiving news about emancipation. Their responses to gaining freedom and imagining new futures set the framework for my self-portraits. I considered myself a conduit to envisioning a future where they could deliberately critique their oppressor with agency and authority.

I also think about the history of photography, for example, through the collection of photographs I’m stewarding as a curator. I am working to preserve and make accessible an archive of about ten thousand photographs made between 1907 and 1977 by two black photographers from my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Over seventy years, the Hooks Brothers evidenced the economic growth and power of Black Memphians. They are photographers I learned about in my youth but not through courses teaching the history of photography in exemplary art programs in the US. The curriculum tends to skew toward white male photographers, denying the contributions of black and brown image-makers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If I hadn’t been aware of the Hooks Brothers or come across the research of scholar and curator Deborah Willis on the history of US Black photographers, I likely wouldn’t have engaged with the medium.

Untitled no. 86, St Helena Parish, South Carolina

BV: The more time I have spent with your photographs, the more I am drawn to the word power as I return to the works. There are parallels to Sasha Huber’s series Tailoring Freedom (2021-22) which sought to commemorate seven enslaved individuals, adopting art as a means to heal colonial traumas. What has the power of photography offered you in your work?

Photography affirms my identity as a black, queer woman and allows me to canonise myself through this ongoing body of work.

During my making process, I reflected upon the work of Sojourner Truth. Truth, a formerly enslaved woman and an abolitionist, was one of the most photographed women of her time. She used photography to support the anti-slavery movement. Her slogan, imprinted on her images, ‘I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,’ empowers me to continue supporting the cause. My photographs connect the past with the present march towards racial and gender equity.

On the power of photography, my introduction to the medium was through my mother. I fondly remember my mom grabbing her 1977 Saturn blue Samsonite cosmetic case from her bedroom closet and sitting with me on our living room sofa to sift through black-and-white and colour snapshots. We’d pause on each image, identifying the people and talking about who they were, their social status, clothing, and hairstyles. Our conversations would lead to narratives about what it was like to be Black in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1940s–1970s. In watching my mother move through this process with me, I noticed how photographs offered her a space to both grieve and heal as she recollected her lived experiences. It’s unique to me and grew as the impetus for interpreting and engaging with Black histories of trauma, self-making, resilience, and pride.

I create this body of work due in part to the unwavering support of my community. I honour my ancestors who laboured on cotton plantations in Kilmichael and Jackson, Mississippi. My enduring gratitude is owed to my brother, Charles-Reginald Smith, who purchased my first camera in high school, and to my parents, Charles and Regina-Hale Smith, who consistently champion my way of thinking and making through photographs. To my grandmothers, Archa Harvery-Glass and Rose Hale, thank you for implanting photography in my DNA by assisting photographers in the darkroom and portrait studio at Blue Light Studio in Memphis in the 1950s.


Untitled no. 51, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA


Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA

BV: These monochromatic works really bring to life the haunting presences entrenched in the images. They raise crucial questions about the ethics of the gaze as well as the erasure of history in the locations that are depicted. Can you speak about why this series has been so significant in your practice?

This series is significant because public and private institutions in various US states across the South are editing, erasing, or banning the history of slavery from educational curricula. I aim to use my art practice to help return the topic of slavery and social injustice to the classroom. It’s important that the generations after me—especially those who look like me—know their history.

Many former plantations are following a similar path, effacing this history by converting their sites to boutique hotels and providing an experience of luxury and leisure as though slavery never happened on their soil. The staff invite guests to dine at on-site restaurants, indulge in cocktails while touring the grounds, or host wedding ceremonies. I view these continuous acts of erasure as indignities, as they obscure the truth.

BV: Rose, what does it mean for you to have this collection of works displayed at Autograph, given our history of redressing archives and bringing often unheard narratives to light?

It’s an honour to present my photographs at Autograph and show them alongside the exhibition Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile. While our subject matter varies and belongs to different periods, the photographs themselves subvert power structures that continue to infringe upon the lives of Black people. Nevertheless, our work is in a space committed to celebrating and visualising the power of global blackness. The works of artists that Autograph has supported since 1988 are powerfully emotive beyond measure. I’m grateful to be part of the exhibition archive and ongoing dialogue about Black visibility and artistic intervention.

Part of the exhibition

C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power

13 Jun – 12 Oct 2024
A free exhibition confronting the histories of violence and wealth on cotton plantations in the Southern United States, and proposing a reclamation of black visibility.

Find out more

exhibition supported by

All images by C. Rose Smith, courtesy the artist. Banner: Untitled no. 39, Maginnis House, New Orleans, LA [detail].

Images on page: 1) Untitled no. 90, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, TN. 2) Untitled no. 82, Joseph Aiken House, Charleston, SC. 3) Untitled no. 86, St Helena Parish, Louisiana. 4) Untitled no. 51, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA. 5) Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA. 6) Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA [detail].