Exhibition at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute


Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute
120 East 125th Street
New York, NY 10035


Exhibition Description

The exhibition explores intersecting ideas of race, myth, art, and justice through the lens and unique interpretations of twelve inter-generational photographers. Via innovative contemporary art practices, the photographers engage with the premise of “race” as a social construct rooted in myth, while simultaneously interrogating its profound implications and indignities on our 21st-century lives.

With roots in the United States and throughout Africa and the Caribbean—including Guyana, Jamaica, Nevis, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and Sierra Leone—the photographers draw from an African Diasporic worldview steeped in their personal experiences as well as larger geographical political histories. Collectively, their images offer a poignant and provocative portrait of the ways the mythology of race and the pursuit of justice continue to permeate the global African experience.

Race, Myth, Art, and Justice celebrates a community of voices who illuminate how art continues to serve as a powerful tool for justice. As part of CCCADI’s commitment to public engagement and collaboration, the curators invited thirteen dynamic scholars, activists, artists, and writers to reflect on the exhibition’s works. Through their thoughtful framing, we witness how the images transcend limiting labels of “political,” “radical,” or “protest” art. These photographs are not merely gestures or symbolic meditations on race and justice. Instead, they reflect exclusion, erasure, and invisibility as the lived realities we wrestle and resist every day.

Featured Artists:

Kwesi Abbensetts, Faisal Abdu’Allah, Terry Boddie, Jonathan Gardenhire, John E. Dowell, Jr. Adama Delphine Fawundu, Deborah Jack, Zoraida Lopez-Diago, Radcliffe Roye, Stan Squirewell, Ming Smith, Deborah Willis.


Curators: Grace Aneiza Ali and C. Daniel Dawson | Project Coordinator: Marta Moreno Vega, President of the Creative Justice Initiative


The opening reception will debut the exhibition and will feature remarks by our new Melody Capote, Executive Director, curators, artists, and a festive reception.

To learn more about the exhibition click here: https://cccadi.org/racemythartandjustice

WHEN: November 15, 2018 – June 15th, 2019

WHERE: Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute

ADMISSION: Free with RSVP | Optional Suggestion Donation $5.00

The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI)preserves and presents African Diaspora cultures; trains the next generation of cultural leaders; and unites Diaspora communities. We leverage arts and culture as tools for personal transformation, community-building, and social justice.

Major support for the exhibition has been provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The Ford Foundation, with additional support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Art Blog: Review of Cotton Exhibition

John Dowell spins redemption from cotton’s painful history at the African American Museum of Philadelphia

Janyce Glasper offers a poetic reflection of John Dowell’s current exhibition at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past. On view through January 21, 2019, this installation of large-scale prints and medium-format digital collages explores slavery, not as a particularly southern phenomenon, but as an institution that haunts our nation from Alabama from Wall Street. What’s more, Dowell uses the symbolic force of cotton to carve out a space for personal reflection and collective celebration.

John Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past on view at the African American Museum of Philadelphia is a multi-sensory experience that pulls visitors in through strong visuals and attentive listening.

John Dowell, "Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at AAMP, Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper
John Dowell, “Lost in Cotton”, print on Taffeta. From “Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper.

North and South

One cannot dismiss the unhealed wounds that slavery has burned into the fabrics of America and other countries around the world. Dowell articulately combines two mediums — photography and printmaking — to develop complex dialogue on cotton and its role in history. Cotton occupies either the pinnacle focus or relegates into the background as a secondary element, collaged alongside digital drawings and strategic bold text. The most intriguing compositions superimpose cloud-like cotton over images of young black Harlem residents reading and dreaming. Dowell’s research on Seneca Village — a 19th century settlement of free blacks upon which Central Park was built — provides a significant parallel to the current turmoil of Harlem’s gentrification. In The Poet, a child holds a white paged book and a microphone. Rows and rows of sunlit cotton around him suggest spiritual reverence and emotional homage. The abundant, personified cotton serves as audience, attentive and affectionate to the orator.

I spoke with Dowell adjacent to Lost in Cotton, a constructed maze of digital prints on hanging strips of taffeta. “When my grandmother was a little girl, she got lost in a field of cotton,” he explained. “Down outside Augusta, technically South Carolina, cotton grows five feet tall, which is very rare.” A sign asks the spectator to enter the maze between the strips and move clockwise towards the open center. Once inside, splendorous high cotton portraits surround and confound the tight space, resonating with the psychological plight of Dowell’s lost and petrified ancestor.

A celebration of survival

“I’m using cotton as a symbol for the black body and the actual places [black bodies occupied].” Dowell uses cotton — one of the most humiliating symbols of slavery — to uphold and celebrate black survival. Fertility, strength, and healing are united in jarring closeups of plump cotton bolls that leap from saturated archival prints while soft, haunting hymns and work songs drift in the background.

Dowell’s digital prints range in scale from framed mid-sized pieces to massive panoramic shots on unstretched canvas. These compelling cotton landscapes eulogize the forgotten, the voiceless. He has captured and bestowed new meanings, redefining the cause of tremendous, generational pain. For example, Up Close is a sophisticated compilation, a sequential medley of images combining striking saturated colors and intense shots of cotton thriving in nature. Butterflies situate atop the snowy whiteness, marigold and black wings enhancing the stark, ordinary cotton.

John Dowell, "Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past" at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper
John Dowell, From “Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” at AAMP. Photo by Janyce Denise Glasper

Space for reflection

In a nook on the third floor, there is an area to rest and draw breath, to reminisce, to hold and feel the weightlessness of cotton and its brittle leaves. Viewers are also allowed to bring in old photographs and place them on the altar framed by tall cotton plants, to honor their families in a collective embrace.

Dowell’s Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past is awe and sustenance, a reflection on a fluffy plant and its grisly impact on past and present black lives. The whole breadth of this sincere and educational show is a love letter addressed to the wonders of the human condition — a love letter that confesses yearning, compassion, and victory.

“Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” is on view September 15, 2018 — January 21, 2019 at The African American Museum of Philadelphia, 701 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA, 19106. Museum hours are Wednesday thru Saturday 10-5pm and Sunday 12-5pm. Contact AAMP at (215) 574-0380.

Philadelphia Tribune: Review of Cotton Exhibition

Hardness of cotton field work on display in new exhibit

Link to original article

It’s Just Cotton, Cotton, by John Dowell artist photographer
“It’s Just Cotton,” Georgia Cotton, 2012

Photographer John E. Dowell Jr.’s latest exhibition, “Cotton: The Soft Dangerous Beauty of the Past”, takes viewers into the cotton fields to explore its beauty and the role it played in the U.S. slave trade.

“Cotton is a part of the experience of every American. Cotton ran the engine of our economy,” said Dowell, 77, professor emeritus of printmaking at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.

The 35 large-scale photographs, installation and altarpiece also evokes the often overlooked history of slavery in the North, specifically in New York City. Dowell has built photographic images placing cotton on and around forgotten slave auction sites Wall and Pearl Streets in New York City, and Central Park, where Seneca Village, the first U.S. middle-class Black community existed.

“I really found out another startling fact that in 1730 or so, 40 percent of all inhabitants of New York City owned slaves,” Dowell says. “The biggest slave market was at Pearl and Wall Street and a Black community called Seneca Village was where Central Park now is. It was the first area where Blacks owned their property so that they could have the right to vote. So, this cotton has caused me to stumble into all this stuff about history that just blows my mind.”

Dowell’s meticulous documentation of cotton began in 2011, when after several dreams he awoke and asked his grandmother: “What did I do and what do you want me to do?”

In response to his middle-of-the-night spiritual consult: “I assumed that my grandmother was all over me. I know about possessions, and I felt it was a real bona fide possession.” So he called several Savannah, Ga., cotton farmers and began shooting fields of cotton, similar to ones his grandmother traversed as a girl in South Carolina.

“Every time that I’ve gone photographing cotton, I’ve had some kind of emotional experience,” notes Dowell. “One time in particular, I was coming over this hill in Virginia and drove into the dead end of a cotton field. As far as I could see from my left to my extreme right was solid cotton. It just blew my mind and I just stopped the car. I thought, ‘What would I have done if I had to get up to that at five o’clock in the morning for the rest of my life?’”

Dowell, a Philadelphia native and descendant of the Great Migration, said his project revealed just how little he knew about cotton.

“The more I photographed, the more images started coming to me. In ’15, I started having dreams again,” Dowell says. “It was time to go again because Big Mommy was calling. I went to Virginia, North and South Carolina and in the middle of this started looking for tall cotton. Most cotton is waist-high, and my grandmother talked to me about being lost in a cotton field when she was 3 or 4. I wanted to do this piece and wanted to find tall cotton. Last year, I found it.”

His discovery allowed him to create a maze of huge curtains printed with images of cotton, much like the field his toddler grandmother was once lost in.

“With this project, I want the viewer to feel, remember, wonder, think and examine their consciousness and still see the beauty of this plant that changed the world,” Dowell says.

Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past” exhibits from Sept. 15, 2018 to Jan. 21, 2019, at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), 701 Arch St., Philadelphia. For more information, call (215) 574-0380.

bbooker@phillytrib.com (215) 893-5749