Anna Arabindan-Kesson
Art historian, writer, curator

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Cotton in Philadelphia

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Currently on view at the African American Museum in Philadelphia is a fantastic exhibition called Cotton: The Soft, Dangerous Beauty of the Past. The show features evocative photographic works by artist John Dowell that hauntingly describe this complex and visceral history of American racism, capitalism and Black resilience. Dowell focuses both on the landscape of cotton - with panoramic views of cotton plantations, and microscopic frames that zoom in on the cotton plant - and its centrality to the nation’s history. He creates dreamscapes in some of his imagery, overlaying cotton fields onto the architecture of New York for example as a prescient reminder of the Northern states’ reliance on slavery, and their role in the cotton trade. A cotton altar, with large, woolly bolls stands in one corner, a gorgeous memorial to the ancestors who worked the fields and did more than survive, but also a stark reminder of the continued legacies of these histories of racism. In another room, floor to ceiling fabric is imprinted with rows of cotton to create an immersive experience for viewers who are able to walk through the labyrinthine arrangement. As the silky textures of the cloth sway against our bodies - a feeling not unpleasant - we are also encased by cotton, a material reminder of the dangerous beauty of the past.

It’s an important exhibition and I’m honored to have been asked to give a guest lecture in relation to it, which will be on February 17th at 2 pm.