Viewed in Context

Viewed in Context

Cotton was one of the USA’s most lucrative commodities during the 19th century. By 1860, enslaved African were harvesting over two billion pounds of the plant annually. Southern plantation owners amassed immense wealth through this forced labour, leading to economic growth in the region. Today, we can see the remnants of this in the luxurious antebellum houses scattered accoss the American South. However, many of these have turned into tourist spots promising impressive “historic” buildings without actually acknowledging the brutal past that led to their creation. Talking Back to Power is C. Rose Smith’s (b. 1995) way of reclaiming visibility for the numerous Africans who remain unnamed despite playing an essential role in the economic prosperity of the South. The visual artist’s exhibition at Autograph, London, contains a series of self-portraits in black-and-white. The project revolves around one simple garment: the white cotton button-up. Smith wears the shirt, a symbol of formality and respectability, in plantation sites to remind viewers about the history of violent exploitation haunting these buildings and fabric.

Plantation houses hold the spectre of anguish and violence suffered by the victims of chattel slavery. Built with the labour of millions of slaves during the 19th century, these complexes continued to spread and accrue immense wealth for their owners. The money took physical form in many of the opulent antebellum houses scattered across Tennessee, South Carolina and Louisiana – sites that remain standing today. Many contemporary creatives are using art to draw attention to these sites. For example, Dawoud Bey’s (b. 1953) monochrome Elegy series is a reminder that “history remains with us in the present; it permeates the very ground we walk on, the air we breathe.” These settings serve as the backdrops of C. Rose Smith’s self-portraits. In Untitled, no. 55, the artist’s white shirt contrasts the dark living room. She sits crossed legged on a luxurious sofa, with an expensive rug at her feet and an ornate glass cabinet behind her. Disregarding the camera, she looks determinedly beyond the bounds of the frame. Where was this image taken? At Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, the largest extant plantation house in Louisiana.

This setting is a reminder that there is more to Smith’s images than what first meets the eye. In the 19th century, John Hampden Randolph (1813-1883) commissioned Nottoway. It was designed by architect Henry Howard, built by enslaved people and completed in 1859. Data about the actual number of slaves he had are inconsistent, but there seem to have been at least over 155. Fast forward 165 years to today, this fact about the original owner of the property is obfuscated by a lack of context and a focus on the charm and beauty of the “White Castle.” Today, it’s a tourist attraction, one the website touts is “a AAA Four-Diamond property, home to one of the South’s largest historic mansions” and a venue for staying, dining and even getting married. It is telling that the “History” tab only shares information about the ground’s “16 majestic oak trees spread across the 31-acre property.” Nevertheless, C. Rose Smith acknowledges the blood-soaked past of this setting in Talking Back to Power. She states: “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.”

Throughout these images, C. Rose Smith’s confronting presence demands visibility as an act of resistance. She explains that “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.” This is exactly what the visual artist does by drawing our attention to the legacies of exploitation and violence held within clothes – such as the white cotton shirt – and buildings – including Nottoway – that seem innocent on the surface. Below the beauty and respectability are centuries of suffering and resistance that must be addressed.


Autograph, C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power | Until 12 Oct

autograph.org.uk

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh


Image Credits:

  1. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 89, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, Tennessee, 2023. From the series Talking Back to Power. Commissioned by Autograph, London and FotoFest, Houston. Courtesy the artist.
  2. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 40, Maginnis House, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2022. From the series Talking Back to Power. Courtesy the artist.
  3. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 55, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 2022. From the series Talking Back to Power. Courtesy the artist.
  4. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 86, St Helena Parish, Louisiana, 2023. From the series Talking Back to Power. Courtesy the artist.
  5. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 91, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, Tennessee, 2023. From the series Talking Back to Power. Commissioned by Autograph, London and FotoFest, Houston. Courtesy the artist.
  6. C. Rose Smith, Untitled no. 89, Belmont Mansion, Nashville, Tennessee, 2023. From the series Talking Back to Power. Commissioned by Autograph, London and FotoFest, Houston. Courtesy the artist.