C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 2022 / From the series Talking Back to Power / Courtesy of the artist
C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power
Jun 13 – Oct 12, 2024
London, UK

Focused on the intricate dynamics of visibility and authority, Talking Back to Power proposes a reclamation of black visibility. C. Rose Smith’s evocative black and white self-portraits revolve around the white cotton shirt, staged at locations affiliated with the wealth generated from cotton plantations in the Southern United States of America.

During the 19th century, cotton was one of the most lucrative global commodities. Built on the forced labour of millions of enslaved Africans, plantation complexes that grew, cultivated and sold this crop formed the basis of monumental economic advancement and progress.

Throughout her photographs, Smith fashions a crisp white button-up shirt, a potent emblem of both exploitation and respectability. She poses in opulently decorated antebellum homes in Tennessee, South Carolina and Louisiana, by-products of the wealth amassed by the owners of cotton plantations. Entrenched throughout these buildings is the lingering spectre of the magnitude of violence and anguish that is inextricably linked to chattel slavery. Despite many undergoing meticulous restorations and now serving as tourist destinations, these buildings bear witness to the enduring legacy of human suffering.

“There is a humility in sitting as an act of rest in starched white cotton garments, envisioning my ancestors labouring in endless fields…knowing who I belong to, a race of people who are the true and living architects of this nation”.

Emulating the formal compositions of 19th century oil paintings, Smith’s portraits powerfully reflect on the black body as a former commodity. Her unwavering gaze commands attention within the gallery space, underscored by the echoing sound of the bell chiming at Belmont Mansion in Tennessee. Smith’s confronting presence demands visibility as an act of resistance. In the artist’s own words: “it is unexplainable and almost unimaginable to take up the freedom of expression as a maker of images…there is an unsettling consolation in confronting, addressing and contesting structures that have and continue to exist as archives of anti-blackness.”

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