Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile / C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power

Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile / C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power


June 3, 2024
Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile
Documenting New York City during the height of the civil rights movement in America
C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power
Confronting the histories of violence and wealth on cotton plantations in the Southern United States
June 13–October 12, 2024
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Opening night: June 12, 6–8pm, Free, booking essential
Reclaiming History: Power and Visibility: June 14, 6–7:30pm, Book in advance to join us
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A Lens in Exile: A BSL response: July 11, 6:30–8pm, In BSL only
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Thursday 11am–9pm,
Saturday 12:30–6pm
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Autograph’s gallery in Hackney will be launching two new exhibitions: the first UK exhibition of Ernest Cole’s photographs documenting New York City during the height of the civil rights movement in America, and C. Rose Smith’s work confronting the histories of violence and wealth on cotton plantations in the Southern United States.

Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile
Curated by Mark Sealy
. Offering a rare and reflective insight into the seminal South African photographer Ernest Cole, A Lens in Exile is the first UK exhibition of his photographs documenting New York City during the height of the civil rights movement in America.

Best known for his radical images documenting the violence of apartheid, Cole fled South Africa in 1966 and was officially made stateless in 1968. In a televised interview in 1969 he expressed a hope of being liberated from the day-to-day experience of racism. Focused on the humanity of everyday life, Cole spent his first years in New York City photographing Harlem and Manhattan, focusing his lens on the experience of living in a racialised America.

Framed against the struggle for civil rights, Cole captured moments of emergent black awakenings, unfolding within public and private spaces by the forces of Black Pride and Black Power. His photographs—documenting protest, politics and daily existence—were forged through a transgressive challenge to the status quo of American society.

Despite Cole’s observant eye confronting America in transition, these social documentary images revealed a chasm. Disillusioned and isolated in exile, he began to reflect that the systemic exclusion and segregation he experienced in South Africa was also prevalent in America. In his own words “it wasn’t any better: there was no freedom”. The photographs on display were taken between 1967–72, representing a small chapter of Cole’s 40,000 images taken while in exile.

Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile is realised in collaboration with Magnum Photos and the Ernest Cole Family Trust.

C. Rose Smith: Talking Back to Power
Curated by Bindi Vora
. 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 cultivated and sold this crop formed the basis of monumental economic advancement.

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.

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.”

Belmont Mansion (2023) from the series Talking Back to Power is commissioned by Autograph, London and FotoFest, Houston. June 13–October 12, 2024. Free entry.

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June 3, 2024

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