Blog / Texts

5 Things to Know About C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power

POSTED: 11 June 2024

Introducing the artist and key themes behind Autograph’s new exhibition, commemorating the legacies of slave labour and cotton production in the Southern United States

Find out more about artist C. Rose Smith and explore a few of the histories and subjects that are key to her new exhibition. Talking Back to Power is free to visit at Autograph until 12 October 2024.

1. Who Is C. Rose Smith?

C. Rose Smith (born 1995), is a visual artist examining the role of photography in constructing layers of identity and individuality. Using fashion, site-specificity and elements gleaned from studio-portraiture, her photographs engender a subversive performance that gestures a critique of social norms. Smith lives and works between Tennessee and Rhode Island, USA.

Through photographs, I affirm myself and take pride in being black, queer, and a woman who embodies androgyny, claiming agency and ownership over my image and the image of Black Americans."

C. Rose Smith

2. What kind of work is in the exhibition?

Talking Back to Power consists of a moving image work and a series of black-and-white self-portraits, staged at locations associated with the wealth generated from cotton plantations in the Southern United States of America.

Throughout her photographs, Smith wears a crisp white button-up shirt and poses in grandly decorated homes in Tennessee, South Carolina and Louisiana, built using the wealth amassed by the owners of cotton plantations. The images have a haunting presence, highlighting the magnitude of violence and anguish linking these locations to chattel slavery.

Untitled no. 90, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, TN

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

3. What is the history of the Confederate or Southern States of America?

In 1861, 11 of the Southern states of America tried to break away from the US to form a new alliance, or confederacy, and on 12 April 1861 a Civil War broke out between ‘the North’ (who wanted to maintain the union), and ‘the South’.

The major point of contention between the two factions was over the issue of slavery, with those in the Southern states wishing to preserve slavery – an issue which had dominated American politics for decades in the lead up to the war.

Slavery formed a significant part of Southern society, with much of their economy dependent on the forced labour of enslaved African people, working on plantations to produce resources including cotton, sugar and tobacco amongst others. The wealth created from the sale of these crops formed the basis of monumental economic advancement and progress for the white elite.

After four years of heavy fighting, the Confederate states were defeated and the Civil War ended in 1865. Later that same year, as part of the implementation of the Reconstruction of the American South, the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. This freed an estimated four million African Americans, who accounted for almost a third of the population of the Southern States.

4. What is the significance of cotton to Smith’s work?

Cotton was America’s main export and one of the principal crops produced by enslaved labourers working on plantations in the Southern United states prior to the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. In their work, Smith is pictured wearing a cotton shirt at sites of former plantations across the Southern states. Through this simple prop, Smith brings together the different meanings of the shirt: juxtaposing the history of the fabric and its ties to exploitation and slavery with the continued symbolism of the white cotton shirt, worn to signify finery, formal wear and respectability.

The cotton shirt allows Smith to visually bring together a powerful reflection on the black body as a former site of commodification. Her confronting presence demands visibility as an act of resistance.

5. How is the history of slavery and cotton production relevant to Britain?

Between 1662 and 1807 Britain was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade, transporting and selling more than 3 million African people. The triangular trade route – which went from Europe to Africa, to the Americas and back to Europe – was highly lucrative. On the first leg of the route, European merchants exported goods to Africa in exchange for enslaved African people and other commodities. These ships then travelled across the Atlantic to the American colonies where the slaves were sold for produce such as cotton, tobacco and sugar which would return to Europe.

London was the financial heart of Britain’s involvement in the trade system, and ships from Liverpool, London and Bristol dominated the slave routes. During this time, Manchester also became the world's first industrial city, capitalising on slavery and the cotton trade through its textile mills.

Traces of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade can still be seen all around us in the public sphere today – from the naming of streets to the placement of monuments – the history of slavery is a living history.

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. 89, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, Tennessee [detail].

Images on page: 1) Courtesy of C. Rose Smith (2024). 2) Untitled no. 90, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, TN. 3) Untitled no. 82, Joseph Aiken House, Charleston, SC. 4) Untitled no. 40, Maginnis House, New Orleans, LA. 5) Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, LA [detail].