In his studio at Area 405, mixed media artist Stephen Towns stands at his easel, surveying a painting. Warm, iridescent amber light pours in through the windows. Dried oil paint dots wooden workbenches. Canvases in varying stages of completion cover the walls. Towns stands and stares and, after some time passes, looks away from the work, adjusts his glasses and settles onto a stool to talk about his solo show "Take Me Away to the Stars" at Galerie Myrtis, opening this Saturday.
The work, which explores Nat Turner's rebellion, also has a personal connection. Towns, the youngest of 11 children, grew up in a small South Carolina town called Lincolnville, about 30 minutes outside of Charleston. The town was segregated along racial and economic lines by railroad tracks that divided the community in half. "It's not until I was an adult that I realized how segregated it was," Towns says. "And maybe it needed to be because I was able to be more comfortable in myself being segregated. I never realized I was poor until I was an adult and saw how other people lived."
Towns moved from South Carolina to Baltimore in 2010. "Being here living in Baltimore," he continues, "having the experience of being black, there is a part of me that just wants to escape and find peace and sometimes the only way to find peace is through daydreaming, and the stars, and looking for something above."
I first encountered Stephen Towns' work through his painting 'I Wish it Were That Easy,' which was included in the exhibition "To Be Black in White America" at Galerie Myrtis a few months ago. In the painting, a woman stares out from the center, framed by a noose and an American flag. An "I Voted Today" sticker is pinned to her chest. Her eyes are defiant. Those eyes transfixed and pained me, but the work's realism and timeliness inspired me.
In varying ways, Towns' art leans toward histories of black resistance in America. The works in this series reference novels like James McBride's "The Good Lord Bird," Stephen B. Oates' "The Fires of Jubilee," and William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," as well as archival photographs and other narrative accounts from the 1831 Slave Rebellion led by Nat Turner in South Hampton, Virginia. In his paintings, Towns heavily incorporates religious iconography and magical realism to contextualize and add to the folklore surrounding Turner's life and legacy.
Rather than replicating scenes from the rebellion, however, this work focuses more on the psychological impact of slavery. Towns also uses daydream and religion—particularly Christianity and the book of Exodus—as strategic symbols and frameworks of escape, rebellion, and freedom. In much of the work, he presents likenesses of Turner and other enslaved men, women, and children as canonized fever dreams, haloed with gold leaf, the moon, or nooses. Butterflies and other metamorphic iconography flutter about cotton plantations. In some scenes, Cherry Turner, wife of Nat Turner, is depicted as a magician assisting Nat in miraculous feats of escape. The collection has a rhythm, reading like a soundscape composed in four movements, and features four series: "Joy Cometh in the Morning," "Story Quilts," "Black Magic," and "Find Me A Constellation." Each series includes quilts and paintings imagining martyrs who vehemently fought and died alongside Nat Turner while resisting the devastating institution of slavery. "Find Me A Constellation" is the only series of portraits that reference real images of enslaved children; the other people Towns depicts are surrogates for the millions of enslaved Africans whose names we do not know.
There is very little known about Turner's life, and the fragments that have been revealed are shrouded in mysticism. Turner's legacy is weighted by opinions that consider the justification of his actions, and mark him as a mass murderer or a martyr. Perspective is everything, Towns seems to say here; it's what informs the stories that are archived and distributed as historical knowledge throughout the world.
Towns was interested in the idea of Turner as a prophet, citing his mother and grandmother, who told him he was special because of a mark on his chest and head, and his preternatural sensitivity as a child. "And people were like, there's no way you would have known those things because you were a child and nobody ever told you that," Towns says. "So he had this idea that he was a special person. When he ran away he came back because he had this revelation about this revolution that he should lead."
Towns ruminates on the violence of the rebellion itself, along with the violence of slavery, and its impact on the children and adults who were enslaved. "Whose violence is justifiable?" he asks. "Nat killing these fifty people or the genocide of slavery? These are the big questions that I want people to answer when they view the exhibition."
Black children were not at all spared from slavery, of course, and "Take Me Away to the Stars" reminds viewers of this fact. The "Find Me A Constellation" series is comprised of six small, square portraits of enslaved children. "I was thinking about the idea of the child slave and being born into a system that is all you know," Towns says. "But the way they escape is through the stars and daydreams. In each of the child's hair are constellations of stars. All are named from the book of Psalms. There is a fiber piece in each piece, patches of whiteness which help define who they are in America." The sternness of the children's tiny features is sobering. Butterflies and gold metal leaf halos enshrine each child, christen their memory, acknowledge their lives, and the sacrifice of their youth.
A major strength of the exhibition is its emphasis on displaying the agency of those enslaved. The "Joy Cometh in the Morning" series depicts six portraits of "Freedom Figures," martyrs who fought alongside Turner during the rebellion. "They knew that they would have to die for this cause," Towns explains. "These figures, I call them the Freedom Figures, because they are taking their lives into their own hands, they are sacrificing themselves for the good of the black and brown community." In each portrait a Freedom Figure holds a noose around their neck, complicating the notion of freedom—your chains are broken, but the noose remains.
The "Story Quilts" series features six fiber and glass bead quilts portraying significant moments in Turner's life from childhood to his death. The quilts are rendered like pages from a family album, collaged multi-textured fabrics sewn into new tapestries which serve to archive and place Turner in the long African tradition of using quilt work as a historical archive. One quilt, 'Black Sun,' depicts Turner as an enlightened prophet, draped in a red stole traditionally worn by ordained clergymen, haloed by a beaming mandala which shines against the dark backdrop of Cabin Pond, one of the rebellion planning grounds. The piece masterfully recreates Turner's ecstatic revelation.
The work in "Take Me Away to the Stars" charts the incredible saga of one of the most significant slave revolts in U.S history. But more than that, it offers a narrative of resistance that is often left out of retellings of slave histories. High school history texts would have us believe Africans were content, that they were passively accepting their enslavement. Nat Turner's rebellion is one of many slave revolts that occurred, and though it is one of the few that have been archived, much of the story remains mysterious. Towns' contribution humanizes and gives voice and name to so many unnamed, unheard, whose stories were lost.
"Take Me Away to the Stars" is on display at Galerie Myrtis Nov. 5-Feb. 18, 2017. Opening Reception Saturday Nov. 5. from 3-6 p.m.; artist talk Jan. 28, 2017; Tea with Myrtis Feb. 18, 2017. For more information, visit galeriemyrtis.net.