Trina Michelle Robinson Looks to Make Her Mark on the Art World

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Two pages of text on white paper with dark read threads sewn through most of the words
Trina Michelle Robinson, 'Liberation Through Redaction,' 2022. (Courtesy the artist)

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.

Close-up view of dark red thread sewn through lines of cursive text
Trina Michelle Robinson, detail of 'Liberation Through Redaction,' 2022. (Courtesy of artist)

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.


Robinson still identifies as an emerging artist, even though she may not fit the profile of a bright-eyed, 20-something right out of undergrad. “It doesn’t matter what age you are,” she says. “An emerging artist is anyone with something interesting to say that hasn’t been heard before. Even if they are still finding their voice.”

And Robinson knows what she’s talking about. Though she only received her MFA in 2022, she currently has a solo exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) as part of their Emerging Artists Program. To other would-be artists, Robinson says, “You don’t have to wait. There were a lot of people who told me it was a bad idea to switch paths to be an artist. Especially in today’s economy. But I knew I had to commit fully. I had to do the work for myself.”

A Black woman sits with arms on table, head tilted and smiling in dark blue sweater
Trina Michelle Robinson. (Courtesy the artist)

The MoAD show, titled Excavation: Past, Present, Future, picks up on many of the themes in her family archival work. Once again using raw cotton to make paper, she created a series of intaglio prints that depict landscapes related to her ancestors’s forced migration from West Africa, their survival during enslavement in Kentucky and their migration to the Northern and Western United States. Geography, like the cotton, becomes a medium through which to hear, smell and feel connectedness with history and kin. And yet, there is a feeling of distance which pervades the exhibition.

That distance is an intentional effect. The thickness of the paper gives the prints a blurry texture, the imprecision of which reflexively indicates its own artifice and its distance from the viewers. “The intaglio pieces, like the old documents, are just a record,” Robinson says. “They aren’t a perfect record. It doesn’t represent fully who these people are, and we will never be able to fully see them. But at least I can document them in some way. I can reclaim the narrative.”

Black and white image of a scraggly tree, a horse-drawn cart and a field
Trina Michelle Robinson, 'Baobab Tree, Senegal,' 2022. (Courtesy of MoAD)

In this vein, Robinson’s piece Elegy for Nancy (2022) represents an effort to pull one of her ancestors out of the archive by way of video essay. Due to historiographic constraints, Robinson has mostly unearthed her male ancestors, but Elegy pays homage to her matrilineal line through Nancy, who was born in the 1770s or 1780s. By utilizing Super 8 footage, Robinson has created a grainy film quality, much like the intaglio prints, which yields an imprecise connection to the past. The beauty of the project is that it acknowledges the gaps of history while embracing Robinson’s opportunity to insert herself in its retelling.

Though it is important to feel connected to her ancestors, Robinson’s distance from them is beautiful as well. Separating the past and the present opens up the space for telling a new story, one where freedom doesn’t emerge from redaction but might be realized in the given moment. It is a space of establishing one’s own voice.

Trina Michelle Robinson, still from 'Elegy for Nancy,' 2022. (Courtesy of MoAD)

Which is precisely what Robinson intends to do. As an emerging artist navigating the art world, she is finding her voice. And people are starting to listen. Since her residency at MoAD, Robinson has been featured in several San Francisco shows, including you can hear the wind beneath the floorboards at Root Division and as you summon other worlds at Minnesota Street Project.

While selling her art has long been the furthest thing from her mind, making her mark comes with interested curators and buyers. The work is beautiful, so why shouldn’t buyers look to acquire it? But for Robinson, the prospect of selling her art also raises an impossible question: “How can you appraise soul work?” This is especially fraught when the work of her soul memorializes people who may have been bought and sold themselves.

So for now, she continues to focus on the material. The bag of cotton that began as a symbol of historical dehumanization is now a connection to her ancestors, anchoring her artistry and her ability to leave her own mark on the page.


Trina Michelle Robinson’s exhibition ‘Excavation: Past, Present and Future’ is on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora through Dec. 11. Details here.