For Trina Michelle Robinson, it all began when she picked 10 pounds of cotton. Not the pristine puffs available at a fabric store — raw cotton. Still in the boll, with seeds and everything. It’s the kind of cotton her great-great-grandfather’s brother picked on his farm in Oklahoma. It was the type of cotton, along with other cash crops, that several of her ancestors would have picked while enslaved.
For Robinson, working with cotton was an act of reclamation over the material and the history it touched. Because of her experience through unexpected crop, she became obsessed with learning more about her family history. Ten years later, the resulting journey has moved her across the country, through the archives, out of a job in the tech industry, into an MFA at California College of the Arts and onto museum walls. Through her multimedia art practice, Robinson has learned to create pieces that are archival and personal, beautiful and mysterious — and she still uses the very same bag of cotton with which it all began.
“It was the most therapeutic and labor intensive process,” Robinson says of working with the cotton for her MFA project. Titled Liberation Through Redaction (2022), the piece featured a reproduction of an archival document concerning her ancestors, which Robinson printed on two sheets of paper made from her cotton.
She didn’t simply reproduce a slave narrative. “If that’s what people want, I’m not going to give it to them,” Robinson says. She redacted every mention of the enslaved status of her ancestors with sewn lines of sisal thread. “I’m going to reclaim this material and this history,” she explains. “Instead they are only going to get freedom and liberation.”
The result is a beautiful, personal interrogation of the archives which document the history of enslaved people, and a reimagined visual life for the materials which continue to shape her practice. The piece is currently up at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Arlington, Virginia — a major accomplishment for any emerging artist.