John Dowell blends a unique mixture of spiritualism, historical awareness, racial angst and deft technique to create photographic works that inspire the viewer to recognize the injustices imposed upon the black community, especially in New York, over the past 400 years. Dowell weaves together – both literally and figuratively –complex historical threads addressing issues of slavery, community, and memory, all intertwined with cotton. His large panoramas reinforce the idea of the vastness of cotton across the southern American landscape, as well as the long-term cultural and financial impact that cotton had on the African-Americans who harvested it for their white masters.
In a number of works Dowell delves into the racially fraught lineage embedded within the geography and economic history of Manhattan. A series of works depicts New York City’s Seneca Village, a once thriving African-American community founded in 1825, within view of the modern apartment buildings that today form the western border of Central Park. Seneca Village was razed in 1857 by eminent domain to make way for that Park. Cotton was at the heart of the burgeoning New York garment industry and economy, in images depicting Lower Manhattan Dowell overwhelms Wall Street, site of an historic slave market, with cotton.
"Cotton is our symbol," Dowell says. "That's black people in this country. You just mention cotton, you know what I mean, and for those of us who are a little aware, all the torture, all of that stuff — it's there. And it makes you stop and think. That's why I'm doing the cotton. I couldn't think of a better symbol."
John Dowell is a Philadelphia native and Professor Emeritus of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He has worked as an artist for over four decades, and his prints, paintings and photographs have been featured in 50 one-person exhibitions. His artwork is represented in the permanent collections of over 70 museum and public collections.