Robin McDowell

Robin McDowell

Assistant Professor of African & African American Studies, (On sabbatical '22)
Ph.D., Harvard University
research interests:
  • Her interdisciplinary research methodology draws on archives, oral histories, earth sciences, design, multimedia art making, and experiences from years of grassroots community organizing in the Greater New Orleans area.

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University in St. Louis
    One Brookings Drive
    Campus Box 1109-0137-02
    St. Louis, MO 63130

Robin McDowell’s research explores historical dimensions of environmental racism and visions for environmental justice for Black communities. Through narratives of south Louisiana wetlands, sugar plantations, oil fields, and salt mines, her work demonstrates how racial, environmental, and economic encounters in these spaces created conditions of Black life that shaped and continue to shape the foundations of North America. Her current book project, Swamp Capitalism: The Roots of Environmental Racism, is a history of bonds between race and environment on a geologic timescale.
Her transdisciplinary research methodology draws on archives, oral histories, earth sciences, graphic design, and multimedia art making. She is a member of LifexCode: DH Against Enclosure hosted by Johns Hopkins University and served as co-convenor of History Design Studio at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research from 2018–2020.
She holds a Ph.D. in African and African American Studies and an M.A. in History from Harvard University, an M.F.A. in Design from the University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania.

Featured Projects

INHABITATION: Exhibition and Residency at the Albert and Tina Small Center for Design, Tulane University (October 26–December 15)

INHABITATION: The title refers to a concept that theorist Malcolm Ferdinand writes about in his book Decolonial Ecology, and describes how the participants of this exhibit are attempting to move away from colonial inhabitation wherein land and people are seen as disposable resources. The exhibit showcases a caring engagement with the material byproducts of extraction— such as archival film, chemical pigments, plastic, and expanded polystyrene foam—and invites passerbys to relate and re-imagine our relationships to the built environment, and in turn, one another. Throughout the eight week residency, the exhibit will shift as pieces are worked on, and additional artists contribute.

INHABITATION: Earth Pigments Workshop, Dec. 11, New Orleans, LA

About the Artists
Kira Akerman
 is an educator and documentary filmmaker, and her forthcoming film, Hollow Tree, is about three young women coming of age in the climate crisis. Her installation derives from the film and alludes to 18th and 19th century colonial projects that resulted in manipulation of Louisiana's landscape. Throughout the course of her residency at the Small Center, other participants featured in Hollow Tree will contribute to the exhibition and workshops. Dr.

Robin McDowell
 is a featured expert in the film and will exhibit her mixed media artworks that envision Black history as a chemical and geological churning. It is a resistant reading of the reports and travelogs of white scientists and a subversion of historically rooted horrors of numeracy. Using soil, clay, silt, rock salt, and carbon byproducts from sites in south Louisiana, these artworks reclaim stories trapped within extracted minerals themselves. Annabelle Pavvy, one of the protagonists in the film, will exhibit woodcuts of an extracted cypress tree.