Bayete Ross Smith is a Harlem-based multi-media artist who explores constructions of identity and representations of African-American culture with his practice. Apogee Visual Arts Editor Legacy Russell spoke with Bayete on the occasion of his work being featured as the cover image in Apogee’s fourth issue.
Legacy Russell [LR]: Tell me about your background. Where did you begin your relationship with photography?
Bayete Ross Smith [BRS]: I began photographing in high school. I took a black and white photography class and I just fell in love with the concept of re-creating and archiving my view of the world. It’s a typical beginning for many photographers prior to the digital SLR, I suppose. I continued photographing as a hobby throughout high school and into college. I never really thought of it as a career. Then when I was entering my junior year of college, when I was studying business administration, I realized becoming a corporate executive would be a miserable life for me, so I switched my area of study to photography and began studying photojournalism. I got my start as a newspaper photographer for the Knight Ridder Newspaper Corporation. I worked at the Tallahassee Democrat, the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was my ‘big break’ and the Charlotte Observer. I also did some freelance work for Newsday here in NYC.
LR: What about the still image speaks to you? Where does it succeed? Where does it fail?
BRS: There is something powerful about freezing a moment and archiving it permanently. Moving images are powerful as well, but the still image gives you a certain ability to immerse yourself in a scene, a face an object, for an indefinite amount of time. That ability to stare and soak in certain details is very powerful. Also, still images are a little more versatile, in terms of the means you have to present them to viewers. They can function in various capacities from family albums on up to professional publications and multi-media projects. I don’t know if I would say still images fail in certain areas, unless they are simply not good images. I will say they are often thought of as conveying truth, which is a myth. We are always subject to how the photographer chose to frame the content of a photograph. What is excluded from the frame is as important as what is included. So you could say they fail to represent actual fact and truth, because if one were to shift the frame to the left, or right, or up or down, even slightly, we’d have a significantly different context for responding to what is captured in the frame. It’s similar to how people will say ‘numbers don’t lie.’ Which is kind of true, but no number tells you anything without context. Still photographs are the same way. Context is everything. So they fail to expose us to truth without context, I suppose.
LR: I am particularly interested in the notion or construct of what I call ‘American idolatry’; I curated an exhibition of the same name a while back. The notion of idolatry within American culture for me means that often non-secular imagery or experience take on the feeling of that which is secular, ritualised behaviors that speak to a consciousness that is inherently American. In what way do your works speak specifically to an American sense of identity? Of worship?
BRS: I attempt to examine how identity is perceived and performed in a lot of my work. Identity is another concept we tend to think of as factual, but again, always needs context and framing. Identity is as much a performance, as it is anything else. My work speaks to American identity because that is my paradigm view of the world and I use that as a starting point. Not to say that I ignore other perspectives because I do not, but my approach is based on my foundation. It is my belief that when we perform our identities, we as americans engage in this notion of American idolatry in many cases. I think, due to how American media has dominated the world for the past 70 years, that this notion of American Idolatry has some influence on identity around the world. In my work I examine the notions of who we believe we are versus how others perceive us. At both ends of this spectrum we become aware of our strict adherence to ideas about self and others that we struggle to let go of, even when they are not practical or sensible. We also emulate iconography which can border on idolatry when constructing our identities. In my prom series “Pomp and Circumstance”, I show young people in one of America’s few remaining rite of passage rituals, posing as if they are adults, but not quite being successful in presenting themselves as adults. I realized that they are imitating adult archetypes, which I suppose come from pop culture, history and their families. I think this directly fits this notion of idolatry, specifically an American type. Similarly a lot of my work examines the tradition of portraiture which memorializes “important” people and events.
Again this tradition engages in idolatry in terms of who has their portrait made and how those portraits are regarded by the general public in a contemporary and historical sense. Even with a project like my series of boombox sculptures, “Got The Power”, I am examining how communities identify themselves through their favorite songs and oral history. The soundtracks that accompany each site-specific sculpture are essentially audio portraits of various communities. People submit their favorite songs, then recount a memory from the site of the installation, in the form of a story. Author Junot Diaz once said “We have a possessive, commodified investment in our identities”. I wish I could take credit for that, because it really speaks to how I feel about the concept of identity and how it impacts all human interactions. I believe that possessive investment, essentially becomes religious and our identities and those we construct for other people become idols to a certain extent.
LR: How does gender or race come into play within this dialogue?
BRS: Ultimately I think race and gender are great tools to play with people’s deeply held preconceived notions in combination with their sense of self. Sometimes these are ideas people are not directly aware of. Race is not real. It is a completely artificial construct. Yet racism is real. So the concept of race and how it impacts human interactions across the globe fascinates to me. There are very loaded associations with race, but most of these are very arbitrary. So I really play with the emotional ties we have to race to push my viewers to be introspective within their encounters with my work. Gender is similar in that technically men and women are different, but gender roles in a modern society are somewhat arbitrary to. Yet we assign such high values to these markers of identity and the consequent social interactions they lead to. We do this to the extent that we can’t let go of outdated unuseful aspects of these identity markers. It really hits at the core of our awareness of our existence. ‘I am, I be’ like the De La Soul song on the ‘Buhloone Mindstate’ album. But yeah, gender and race are another way to provoke people to reflect on their emotional reactions to various social issues. You play with gender and race and it moves people emotionally, even if that emotion is in opposition to the concept of race or gender roles. I have a series where I take a light skinned African American friend of mine and place his photo on photographic reproductions of passports from around the world. It is very interesting seeing people’s different perceptions of the same person when that person’s nationality changes, which consequently speaks to issues of race to a certain extent. When he is cuban, it is different from when he is South African, or American, or Israeli, or Sudanese, or Brazilian. In another part of that same series I place the same photograph of a woman on the same passports. We then see how sex/gender affects perception, particularly when we look at male and female from the same country.
LR: Explain to me a bit about the role the physical form plays within your work. Why bodies? And how do the objects they wear or carry enhance the visual conversation and/or bring to the table some symbolism therein?
BRS: My portrait based work focuses on bodies because we have a natural response and connection to the human form.We automatically personify that form within ourselves and simultaneously relate it to people we know. So it’s a way of being familiar without being familiar. Despite all of the conflicts between human beings our shared humanity still brings about strong feelings of connectedness, and compassion. It can also have the extreme opposite effect if the imagery of a person contains objects, clothing and other signifiers that we have loaded associations with. I work to create a feeling of interacting with another person in much of my work. even in a collaborative project like ‘Question Bridge’, we sought to create the feeling of being in the presence of a group of Black men. I do this because a physical experience still resonates with us on a deeply personal level. Though perhaps not for long. Hahaha!
LR: What influences are most primary for you?
BRS: Well i have a variety of interests and influences. If I had to speak overarchingly I would say the entire culture of hip-hop is a primary influence. I mean the four artistic elements and the culture, not simply “rappers”. It’s this idea of remixing and re-inventing for the sake of expression and telling one’s story despite lack of resources and being disenfranchised that truly influences me. Making something out of nothing; and then that something changing the world. People don’t often think of this but one of hip-hop’s most profound effects on the world has been the way it has changed the visual landscape. There are very few places in the world where you will not see burners (graffiti pieces) on the walls. I’ve seen images of hip-hop graffiti in almost every country in some the most random places. That wasn’t part of our visual landscape before hip-hop. Ultimately I think the culture forged my mentality, which, both my mentality and hip-hop are the next continuation of African expression and culture as it has migrated west to the america’s and then back east to the rest of the world.
Music greatly influences me in general. My father is a bass player and that whole side of my family are Jazz trained musicians. I am also influenced by Black intellectuals and artists. everyone from James Baldwin, who I had the privilege of meeting when I was a child, to Paul Robeson, to Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois etc. Visually and photographically, Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, and more contemporary people like Dr. Deborah Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, Steve McQueen. Finally I am greatly influenced by comedy. I really am inspired by how comedians can inform us and inspire thought about serious social issues through laughter. I love that type of informing through entertainment. It is profoundly powerful in my opinion. I really admire comedians like Chris Rock and Louis C.K. I really like that new kid from South Africa, Trevor Noah. And of course I think Tina Fey is amazing as well. But I really liked Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor back in the day, as well as Rosanne Barr. Kathleen Madigan is great too.
LR: Tell me about your studio process – the action of ‘making’ – how does that work for you?
BRS: My process combines taking control of the mitigating factors in a very detailed way, with the raw documentary aspects of photojournalism and socially concerned documentary photography. I do a lot of work on location, documenting aspects of life out in the world. When I am in the studio, even when I am using artistic license, the core of what I am depicting is a reality. For example in my series “Our Kind of People” I have studio portraits of people dressed in different outfits, with the same lighting and the same facial expression, a blank stare. The outfits range from formal, to casual, to creative. However these people are not models. They are actual people I know. The clothing is their clothing and it is worn in a style similar to how they would wear it out in the world. I did not style people in different ways just to create dramatic effect. Theoretically you could see any one of these people, looking like any one of these portraits out in the world, depending on when you encountered them.
I want my work to be something that can be integrated into daily life, so that art comes out of the proverbial “ivory tower” of the “art world” and becomes a relevant and meaningful part of daily life for various types of people. therefore community engagement is a critical part of my art practice. I do a lot of work that engages public spaces in a variety of ways. My feeling is, if we have to deal with adds, why not have something visual engaging and thought provoking that isn’t trying to sell you something you don’t need. Shout out to Don Draper though. Haha. another important part of my creative process is playing with iconography and symbols that we all are aware of and using them as triggers to rethink a commonly glossed over aspect of life. That is what I am doing with the boomboxes. everyone recognizes that object and it is an icon of community music and how culture was shared prior to the digital age. I am doing a similar thing with the passports, the prom images, my series on gun owners and my series on female boxers.
LR: Where do you find those subjects that you photograph?
BRS: Most of my subjects are people I know, who I feel would be a good fit for the concept I am working with. I also take a very documentary approach at times and simply find people who exists in a specific subculture and ask them to be photographic subjects for me. The prom images for example are from actual proms, so I work with educators I know at schools I am familiar with and offer the students an opportunity to participate in my project in exchange for free photographs. In fact I always provide my subjects with the photographs and images I make. That is always part of the exchange. Sometimes people are referred to me, sometimes I find them on the street.
The boxers were women I met at different gyms in New York and in Oakland. I kept going to gyms talking to boxers and trainers and eventually people became very open to me photographing them. Similar thing with the gun owners. I just kept reaching out to people I knew who owned guns or went shooting from time to time and kept discussing how I wanted to create a portrait series showing real gun owners as opposed to these romanticized action heroes and criminals we often see in popular media and the news. My gallerist Guido Maus was very helpful in me finding subjects for this ongoing series.
LR: Away from the photographic process you work in both sculpture and video – how do these genres of media extend the conversation begun within the two-dimensional image?
The two-dimensional image provides the opportunity to sit with the image. Sculpture impacts how you interact with physical space. Multi media and new media impact multiple senses simultaneously and sometimes via technology. So it’s pretty much like using additional tools, in order to create the most significant impact on my audience. Nowadays artist must be interdisciplinary. We no longer work in one or two mediums. We come up with a concept, do research and then determine the best medium or in the case of transmedia, mediums, to execute the idea and impact audiences. Often times we find that different mediums or platforms impact different communities. For example, we reach a different population with interactive online projects, than you do with a traditional film, or in a gallery. Some ideas and stories require sound, some require a moving image, some require an object. It all depends on the impression you want the audience to receive. With ‘Got The Power: Boomboxes’ I needed an object, music and a human voice. With ‘Our Kind of People’, I simply needed still images. ‘For Gatling (America)’ I needed still images, text and audio.
With ‘Question Bridge’ we needed video. But then that expanded to a mobile app. and interactive website, a book, a series of community events and perhaps a long form doc or tv series will be in the future.
LR: What are you currently working on?
BRS: Currently I have several projects in the works. ‘Question Bridge’ is ongoing. We just launched our interactive website and mobile app. last year. We have plans to publish a book and create either a long form doc or episodic series later this year. We will still be doing a few exhibits and a series of screenings this year. However we are really focusing on programming with ‘Question Bridge’ that can respond to current social issues.
My series of boombox sculptures is ongoing. I am currently developing several commissions for that series. I am focusing on doing permanent installations. Currently my piece in Minnesota is the only semi-permanent installation of ‘Got The Power: Boomboxes.’ My ultimate goal with this work is to create a series of permanent sculptures around the world, which have soundtracks that change and get updated from time to time, therefore creating an ongoing archive of music and oral histories in diverse communities around the world. So far I’ve only created them in the United States.
I am completing the tenth year of my prom series which will hopefully become a book after this year. I want the book to examine proms and the prom portrait as a unique American rite of passage, over ten years from 2005-2015. I am working on a series about Harlem residents and the evolution of this historic neighborhood through portraits, oral histories and multimedia pieces created in collaboration with local musicians. And I am still working on my ‘Gun Owners’ series which features them with their favorite guns, entitled ‘Gatling (America)’. Again combining oral history and multimedia with portraits and environmental landscapes. I am also working on a series of videos about U.S. wars and military conflicts, and another series on hip-hop album skits.
I do my best to stay pretty busy. Consequently some projects move slower than others but I believe it is similar to being a musician: you have to be in a lot of bands in order to make sure you are always working. Different points in time and circumstances make working on certain projects more or less productive. So I do my best to strike a balance between all of these factors.
BAYETÉ ROSS SMITH is a photographer, multi-media artist, filmmaker, and educator living in New York City. He is represented by beta pictoris gallery/Maus Contemporary. He began his career as a photojournalist with the Knight Ridder Newspaper Corporation. Bayeté has exhibited with San Francisco Arts Commission, the Brooklyn Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, MoMA P.S.1, the Missouri History Museum, BRIC Arts gallery, Rush Arts Gallery, the Leica Gallery, the Goethe Institute (Ghana), and Zacheta National Gallery of Art (Poland), to name a few. His accolades include the FSP/Jerome Fellowship, fellowships and residencies with the McColl Center for Visual Art, the Kala Institute, A Blade of Grass Fellowship, and Create Change the Laundromat Project’s Create Change residency, to name a few. He has taught with the International Center of Photography, New York University, Parsons: the New School for Design, the California College of the Arts, and Kean University. Bayeté is currently the Associate Program Director for KAVI (Kings Against Violence Initiative), a violence prevention non-profit organization in New York that has a partnership with Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn.