Challenging Bias, Stereotypes and Social Injustice Through Art
with Bayeté Ross Smith
Biases, both conscious and unconscious, affect how we perceive others and the world around us. One artist is using his craft to raise questions about how we think about others and ourselves.
Tetiana Anderson is joined by interdisciplinary artist, photographer and filmmaker Bayeté Ross Smith, who uses his craft to challenge today’s perceptions and stereotypes and connect current issues to historic social injustices.
May 27, 2022
Anderson: 100 years ago, mobs of white residents attacked the historic district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, killing hundreds of residents and wiping out their homes and businesses. But history is often left in the past. But what if you could put yourself in the middle of those riots, see them happening in the streets of modern-day Tulsa? Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. What you just saw was a snippet of "Red Summers." It's a collection of immersive virtual-reality videos by artist and filmmaker Bayeté Ross Smith. He's currently artist in residence at Columbia University's Law School. And Bayeté joins me today to talk more about his creative work in art and media. Bayeté, thanks for being here.
Ross Smith: Thank you so much for having me.
Anderson: So, talk to us a little bit about "Red Summers." How did you get into this project? And what is it that you want people to really take away from it? Ross Smith: Well, I've always been very interested in how history is told. As an African-American, I became aware early on that there's a lot of different versions of history, and not everyone gets all of them. And so over the course of doing my research about history, just in general, African-American history, I came across a time period during World War I where there was extreme racialized white mob violence against black people and black communities. And I realized that a lot of people didn't know about these events because they weren't taught in history classes. And then I started thinking about the current issues the country was facing. And I realized, by looking at the history of these events, that we are facing a lot of the same social issues. And so I wanted to create a scenario where people can go back in time and look at these events, but look at them from a modern-day place. So it's like you're standing on contemporary sites and looking back in time and hearing from historic experts about what happened. And my hope is that we can learn from the violence and the mistakes of the past so that we don't repeat the same mistakes now, given the current social issues we're dealing with in this country.
Anderson: So you use art and technology to really explore the themes of race in society, and "Red Summers" is just one example. What are a couple other examples of your work where you do do that? Ross Smith: Another example is my "Our Kind of People" series, where I take regular people and dress them in clothing that they all own, and then I photograph them with the same lighting and same facial expression in each photograph. And then I take six different versions of them in different outfits and sequence them together into art pieces that I exhibit in different formats, in different places around the world. And what happens is, devoid of any other context for assessing the person in the photograph, the viewer will automatically project their own preconceptions on to each different version of each individual character, but also their preconceptions on the various characters in their different outfits. So it really does become an interesting way of not telling people what to think, but creating a scenario where they're forced to question their pre-existing beliefs, which is an ongoing theme in my work.
Anderson: I know that you suggest that race and class are arbitrary distinctions that are really used to divide, and you say that we'd really be better as a society if we would just stop doing that. So how do you actually plan to make that happen when these things are so ingrained and some people just don't want to let go? Ross Smith: That's a great question. It's less about letting go of them and more about how we use them. So if we can think of things like the concept of race, the concept of nationality, the concept of ethnicity as cultural and they can be utilized more for entertainment value and for intrigue, more so than to assess or assign value to a person, then we're allowed to utilize these things in a more productive way and not utilize them for division.
Anderson: And you sort of basically use art and technology to promote change and understanding and to challenge assumptions and perceptions. How did you get into that space? And where do you go next with your work? Ross Smith: So, I was inspired to get into this space through my experience at a Historically Black College. I went to Florida A&M University. And in my professional training at a HBCU, I became very aware of the way black people shift their personalities and accommodate different social codes for professional purposes. And I knew that it can't just only be black people who do that. So I became really inspired to create images and stories that do a more effective job of representing all of us in our full capacity so that we hopefully can see each other as our full human selves.
Anderson: And, Bayeté, if people want to find out more about your work, where can they go? Do you have a website? Ross Smith: Yes, you can go to my website, which is bayeterosssmith.com. And you can see the "Red Summer" series via The Guardian's website. We published that series with The Guardian. And I'm also hoping to create a series of traveling pop-up exhibitions and screenings of that work all across the country, as well.
Anderson: Bayeté Ross Smith, thank you so much for being here. Ross Smith: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, just log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.