“Stephen Towns: A Migration” exhibit

On September 12 my husband and I attended a reception at the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College in Baltimore County, where mixed media artist Stephen Towns discussed the work in his solo show “A Migration.” The twenty-three paintings curated by Laura Amussen continue Towns’s exploration of the African diaspora and related issues, including slavery, resistance, and the loss of ancestral roots. He wants to tell history, he said, and to make beautiful images.

Stephen Towns
At the opening for “A Migration,” artist Stephen Towns talked about his new series, “Sunken,” inspired by a trip to Ghana in May. Photo via the artist.

Towns is not a Christian (he said he is ambivalent about religion), but he draws extensively on Christian iconography, most notably in the use of haloes to denote the sanctity of black life. When I met him Tuesday I told him I can’t help but read his work through a Christian lens, and he said that’s great, that he welcomes diverse and particularized readings.

Joy Cometh in the Morning

The most conspicuous wall in the exhibition space is the blank one where blue-tape outlines demarcate the spots where six paintings used to hang before a controversy led to their removal. From the series “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” these absent works are head-and-shoulder portraits of unnamed participants in the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, which was inspired by his reading of scripture and his discernment of God’s voice. Each figure is noosed around the neck, harking to the method of their execution, but clenches the rope in a raised fist, staring straight ahead at the viewer with a look of defiance. While shadows of violence flare behind them, a butterfly alights on the knot of their rope, and a silent blue moon forms a halo around their head.

What Profit Is There in My Blood by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), What Profit Is There in My Blood?, 2016. Acrylic, oil, metal leaf, Bristol board, canvas, and paper on panel, 24 × 18 in. Photo via the artist.

Just prior to the show’s opening, an African American employee at the gallery complained that these paintings made her work environment feel abusive and uncomfortable. Out of sensitivity, Towns decided to take down the paintings and instead present photos of them in a binder for optional viewing. An artist’s statement is displayed next to the empty frames, which says, in part,

The original intent of the work was to honor the countless black men and women that fought against slavery, with the knowledge that their very fight may end their lives. . . . Though I am saddened to see the work go, I value Goucher’s Black employees’ concern. The intent of my work is to examine the breadth and complexity of American history, both good and bad. It is not to fetishize Black pain, nor to diminish it.

The overwhelming response to this action among viewers at Tuesday’s reception was frustration: commending Towns’s empathy but questioning whether self-censorship was the right way to go. Both white and black attendees spoke about how one of the powers of art is precisely to make us uncomfortable. Art awakens us to reality, even if that reality is painful. Removing offensive work prevents people from having meaningful encounters with it. Towns expressed his mixed feelings about not wanting to trigger trauma but also wanting to shine a light on hard truths. He said he was intentional about not making the images graphic.

To paraphrase his comments, his aim is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—and when his work has the reverse effect of afflicting the afflicted, he feels guilty.  

I thought the Southampton Insurrection was dealt with responsibly and creatively in the “Joy” paintings and am disappointed not to have had the opportunity to see them in person. The figures in them are not dead; they are alive, even vigorous. As Towns said (and as the fists signify), they have taken their lives into their own hands. Asserted their dignity. Died as martyrs. To carry out God’s will that man be free, they willingly laid down their lives, like Jesus, for their brothers and sisters.

In the post-Renaissance portraiture of western Europe, saints are often portrayed holding the instruments of their martyrdom. Saint Andrew has an X-shaped cross, Saint Jude a halberd, Saint Erasmus a windlass, Saint Catherine a spiked wheel, and so on. While it is sobering to remember the tortuous deaths these Christians underwent to maintain their witness, it is also cause for celebration, for these saints went on to be with God, to full glory, and their example is an inspiration to those saints still on earth. For this reason Christians (generally) do not shy away from gazing on martyr portraits. For Christians, death has no power. Its sting has been removed by the resurrected Christ.

Towns depicts Turner and his co-conspirators as Christian martyrs, holding in place the very tool of their executions—unflinchingly. Those ropes are where the metal leaf is applied, signifying otherworldly light, divine transcendence, by means of death. The monarch butterflies, having emerged from the dormancy of their cocoons, reinforce themes of endurance, change, hope, and new life. As the curator pointed out, monarchs are one of the few insects capable of transatlantic flight. In the “Joy” portraits they offer their gentle knowing presence to ones who survived, or whose ancestors had survived, the dangerous transatlantic journey through the Middle Passage to America. (Note: Towns created these paintings before the release of last year’s Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation, whose “Strange Fruit” scene uses a poignant dolly-out shot featuring a monarch butterfly on a hanging corpse.)

The glory in these six paintings is subtler than in the others, the light of the moon-halo being dimmed to a cool blue. Blue-colored moons have been spotted after volcanic eruptions, which leave particles in the atmosphere of just the right size to preferentially scatter red light. In response to the “eruption” that was Nat Turner’s rebellion, Towns’s moons turn blue, as if in mourning over the rebels’ deaths. Theirs is a glory begot by sadness.

All six titles in the “Joy Cometh in the Morning” series, including the series title itself, are taken from Psalm 30. They are given in boldface below:

I will extol thee, O LORD; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.

O LORD my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me.

O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.

Sing unto the LORD, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.

For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

And in my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.

LORD, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.

I cried to thee, O LORD; and unto the LORD I made supplication.

What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?

Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me: LORD, be thou my helper.

Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;

To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.

Psalm 30 centers on God’s faithful deliverance from “foes” and from “the pit.” It both praises and supplicates, saying, “You’ve helped me” and “Help!” The most abrupt shift is in the middle of verse 7, where “You’ve made me to stand strong” gives way to “You hid your face”—God’s terrifying absence experienced right on the heels of his mighty presence. Still, many churches read this psalm yearly at the Easter Vigil because of its proclamations of triumph over death.

In the mouth of David the psalmist, the three questions in verse 9 are rhetorical. “What profit is there in my blood?” None. He’s saying that if he were to die prematurely, God would be robbed of many more years of praise. The dust of the ground, which our dead bodies become, can’t glorify God or preach his truth.

Or can it?

By highlighting the interrogatives from this psalm, Towns raises the question of whether the rebel slaves’ deaths honored God, whether they made any kind of positive difference. Is their dust silent, or is it speaking?

The Black Christ of Baltimore

Towns grew up outside Charleston, South Carolina, the nation’s former slave-trade capital, but he said it wasn’t until he moved to Baltimore in 2010 that the toll exacted by racism really became real to him, as he beheld racial tensions erupting in violence.

In 2014 he executed three paintings, conceived as a triptych, of what I consider to be a Christ figure, set on the streets of Baltimore: The Prophet of Pennsylvania Avenue; Are You Being Served?; and The Shepherd of Sandtown. They all use the same model.

Stephen Towns exhibition view

The major thoroughfare of Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood, Pennsylvania Avenue used to be a thriving center of African American culture and commerce. Its Royal Theater was one of the main stops on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the chain of clubs and theaters running through the eastern and southern states featuring African American entertainers; Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, the Platters, the Temptations, and Diana Ross and the Supremes are among those who performed there. But the street entered a period of decline following the civil rights riots of 1968, as upper- and middle-class blacks fled, and has never since recovered.

The Prophet of Pennsylvania Avenue by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), The Prophet of Pennsylvania Avenue, 2014. Acrylic and metal leaf on panel, 30 × 24 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Into this declension steps Towns’s black Christ, his hand raised in a gesture of blessing. The fullness of God come down from on high, he’s dressed like those he’s come to serve. “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood,” John the Evangelist writes of the incarnation (John 1:14, The Message). He stands in front of a block of vacant brick row houses. A butterfly hovers over his shoulder, sign of transformation, of resurrection. What is dead, Christ will make alive. Revitalization is what he’s about, which is why the Gospels record him healing broken bodies, broken relationships, broken systems, and broken souls. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Not far from Pennsylvania Avenue is Sandtown-Winchester, known locally as Sandtown, a historically black neighborhood in West Baltimore. It too has been depressed for decades. Now, more than a third of its houses are abandoned, more than a fifth of working-age residents are unemployed, and nearly a third of its families live below the poverty line. Sandtown is where Freddie Gray grew up, whose death while in police custody, ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, sparked the 2015 riots in Baltimore.

The Shepherd of Sandtown by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), The Shepherd of Sandtown, 2014. Acrylic and metal leaf on panel, 30 × 24 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

The Shepherd of Sandtown (painted a year before Gray’s death) employs imagery of the Good Shepherd, an allegorical representation of Christ first used by early Christians in the catacombs.

But in this painting, which figure is Christ: the shepherd, or the sheep? The Bible uses both metaphors for Jesus and both metaphors for God’s people. The slung-over-the-shoulders detail calls to mind Jesus’s parable of the lost sheep:

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:3–7)

But my husband said he sees himself in the painting’s human figure, and interprets it as an exhortation to carry Christ with us wherever we go—to be a Christopher (“Christ bearer”). It’s the sheep who wears the halo, though the man is enlightened by it.

Towns deliberately conflates the two, I think, in this image. I love how he subverts the much more common image of a white man carrying a white sheep, giving us instead a black man carrying a black sheep. Not only that, this shepherd is walking through a modern-day urban environment in a T-shirt, not kicking through the Galilean dust in a first-century robe. This recoloring and transplantation of the Good Shepherd and his sheep helps revivify the biblical allegory, giving African Americans especially new eyes to see that Christ is relevant to their context: he carries them (or they are called to carry him, if you’d rather) right through the thick of daily life.

Displayed between these two Baltimore-based paintings is Are You Being Served?, which shows a black man presenting a jar of milk and a jar of honey on a woven platter. He wears a Star of David around his neck, symbol of his Jewish identity, and a rayed halo, while bees buzz around him. The copper leaf that forms the backdrop evokes the gold-ground panel paintings of Byzantine art, in which the gold symbolized the Uncreated Light of God and his kingdom.

Are You Being Served? by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), Are You Being Served?, 2014. Acrylic and copper leaf on panel, 36 × 24 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

These two food gifts are references to the “land flowing with milk and honey” that God made the ancient Israelites to inhabit after freeing them from slavery—a land of sweet abundance and promise. In Christ, God extended the invitation to live in that promised land to all peoples. To experience true liberation.

I maintain, as I said, that the man in this painting is Christ. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Here he extends a little helping of heaven, a foretaste of the full course. The painting’s title seems to ask, What is it you’re feasting on? Is it nourishing you? If you find your cravings unsatisfied, come, eat at the Lord’s table! He is the host and the meal itself. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34:8).

Where’s the butterfly?

In Christian art the halo represents the light of divine grace suffusing the body and soul. Towns does not ascribe this precise significance to the haloes he paints on his figures. In his talk he said at one time that they are a visible manifestation of the person’s inherent goodness, and wondered how the world might be different if we saw that aura around everyone we encountered. Later he mentioned that they represent spirituality—how black people are more than just bodies, they are spirits too.

Stephen Towns exhibition view

On one of the walls in the gallery three square panels are hung in isolation from the others with the intention, I imagine, of having them read together as a whole. The first two show a figure in profile, a butterfly (hope, change, or whatever meaning you choose to vest it with) approaching. The far-right painting, however, has its figure frontally posed and gazing out at the viewer, and there is no butterfly. It’s titled . . . but he’s so black, a comment, Towns said, he’s heard people mutter about him more than once.

Without Inspection or Appraisal by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), Without Inspection or Appraisal, 2014. Acrylic, oil, and metal leaf on canvas, 20 × 20 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
Ubiquity by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), Ubiquity, 2014. Acrylic and copper leaf on panel, 20 × 20 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.
...but he's so black by Stephen Towns
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), . . . but he’s so black, 2014. Acrylic, oil, and copper leaf on panel, 20 × 20 in. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Someone in the audience asked the artist why there is no butterfly (it’s one of only three paintings in the show that’s missing one), and not wanting to overexplain his works, Towns refrained from answering. My husband says he believes the butterfly’s presence is outside the picture plane, hovering in the third dimension between the figure and the viewer, and that staring at the painting gave him the impression that the butterfly was actually coming toward him. I also felt very engaged by this piece, but my experience was to wonder how I might be an agent of hope and change—how I can be a “butterfly” to someone whose eyes so obviously long for it.

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Historical research is an important part of Towns’s vocation as an artist. The body of work he exhibited last year at his Galerie Myrtis solo show, “Take Me Away to the Stars,” grew out of his tour of Southampton County, Virginia, to visit sites associated with Nat Turner. His “Joy Cometh in the Morning” series was unveiled there, along with “Story Quilts,” “Black Magic,” and “Find Me a Constellation.” (Click here to read a great overview of the show.)

This year a grant awarded by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore enabled Towns to travel to Africa for the first time, where he encountered significant sites in Ghana and Senegal having to do with the transatlantic slave trade. His “Sunken” series, part of the “Migration” exhibition (see top photo), was developed just this summer as a response to his learning more about the Zong massacre, the mass killing of 133 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong in 1781. Towns will be continuing to work out in his studio the experiences and impressions he gathered from his trip.

To receive updates from Towns, follow him on Instagram @stephentowns, Facebook @stephentownsart, and/or Twitter @stownsart. Click here to view his portfolio.

“Stephen Towns: A Migration” is on display through October 16 at the Rosenberg Gallery in the lobby of Goucher College’s Kraushaar Auditorium: 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, MD 21204. Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free parking and entry.

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