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In his latest body of work — including 35 photographs, an installation, and an altarpiece — artist John E. Dowell takes as his subject one of the most influential plants in US history. His exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past (through February 24), grapples with a poignant dissonance in American landscapes — the sense that the natural environment is at once banal and pregnant with meaning, charged with histories of race, enslavement, and migration. This dissonance shows up in several recent art projects about race: think of Rico Gatson’s 2018 video of the route, from country store to courtroom, inscribed by Emmett Till’s murder, or the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, where jars of earth from lynching sites are displayed.
Cotton is the recurring motif in Dowell’s images, which range from landscape photographs of sweeping cotton fields to photo illustrations that infuse cotton bolls (i.e., fiber clusters) into places with under-recognized African American histories. Throughout, Dowell plays with cotton as an ambiguous symbol — a light and fluffy thing dense with painful resonances, variously evoking ghosts, labor, value, and peril.
Though Dowell’s cotton field vistas were photographed in the South, his manipulated photographs focus on sites in New York City, which may surprise some viewers.
One site is Trinity Church on Wall Street, perhaps best known today as the burial place of Alexander Hamilton. During the late 17th century, enslaved Africans labored to construct the original church building. None, however, are buried in the cemetery of the church, which banned their inclusion in a 1697 resolution. In Dowell’s image “The Proper Headstones,” cotton bolls sprout among the tombstones, as if to conjure up the ghosts of people whose bodies helped to build the church without compensation in life or recognition thereafter. In another, cotton streams through the airy sanctuary of the present-day church.
Trinity has publically owned up to this history; in 2016, the church held a conference and released a brief documentary examining its historical connections to slavery. The gesture of acknowledgement would seem to be the very least the church, which has become remarkably wealthy in the last three centuries, could afford. It is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion expected to cost $460 million and holds $6 billion in real estate assets in Lower Manhattan, according to the New York Times.
Dowell’s images don’t recount such stories as much as serve as vivid signposts of the stories’ hidden presence. In another picture, “Bursting Out,” he composites cotton bolls — in this case, resonant with implications of currency and trade — in between architectural columns of 75 Wall Street, a bland commercial building and the site of a historic slave market. By 1730, the percentage of New York’s population that owned slaves was second only to Charleston in the US. (In Philadelphia, a similar site resides blocks from AAMP, likewise commemorated with an understated plaque.)
As an aesthetic strategy, compositing of this type is bracingly literal. It runs the risk being perceived as a Photoshop gimmick and, for this reason, is often eschewed by artists. For the most part, Dowell’s use of the technique comes across as audacious in the best sense — bold and impassioned, even righteously obsessive. He has clearly hit upon a way, blunt but gripping, of visualizing incomplete histories. Despite recognizing a certain formal cliché in “Bursting Out,” I saw a haunting invocation of reparations in it.
Dowell highlights a different dynamic of injustice in a set of images about Seneca Village, the settlement of free African Americans located in Central Park from 1825 until the mid-1850s. The land owned by that community — land that today would likely be worth billions — was reclaimed by the city to build the park. Unearthing this history in photographic form, Dowell augments present-day landscapes with hand-drawn houses and depictions of the churches of Seneca Village, along with historical photographs of Black Americans and, yes, a ground cover of cotton.
With 35 photographs in the exhibition, the repetition of cotton produces a degree of numbness by the final gallery — but, then, so does the enormity of the subject. I was torn between thinking that the exhibition needed a tighter edit and feeling that the overwhelming repetition of cotton was fitting for a topic that should leave people speechless.
But there was one instance in the exhibition where I just wanted more. A small altarpiece of cotton branches and family photos aimed to create a quiet place for visitors to remember ancestors, but it was wedged into a gallery corner by the entrance ramp. This felt like a beautiful idea run aground on museum logistics. The display of photos, where visitors were invited to add their own, felt half-hearted. Really supporting reflection requires a larger, quieter area. Cotton deserves such a space.
Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past continues at the African American Museum (701 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through February 24.