The artistry of Stephen Towns is a commitment to create regal, iconic portraits that identify and celebrate the presence African Americans missing from the narratives of American history. He creates images of working class, poor people of humble means, who were denied, forgotten, dismissed, abused, obliterated and erased from historical memory. Each portrayal is elevated to the status of sainthood in compelling portrayals inspired, in part, by Towns’ admiration of European religious altar paintings. The artist blesses each subject with an ornate halo of metal gold leaf, popularly used during the Byzantine and Middle Ages eras as seen in masterful works of Giotto and Duccio. A Path Between Two Continents is an exhibition of compelling and penetrating compositions that are as much historical, as they are autobiographical and analytical. Towns explores his own sense of self, the beauty of African American physiology and the powerful strengths he sees as distinctive cultural identifiers unique and specific to African American culture.The violence and horrors of the African Slave Trade and Middle Passage, between the continents of Europe and the Americas, serve as a conscious reminder of the relentless racism and oppressions that still continue to plague America and the world today.
Towns was born in Lincolnville, South Carolina, a small town south of the City of Charleston, located in what has been identified as the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor. He grew up in one of the most extraordinary communities of descendants of bonded Africans. A wide range of different African cultures banded together to create their own language, infused with European and Native American words, yet distinctly African in its cultural formation. Gullah Geechee communal history informed Towns’ research using the resources of the National Archives and files of the Works Projects Administration. He re/visions each subject so that he can “examine the nuances and expressions”, positioning them in isolated, meditative spaces. These studies bring the viewer into eye to eye contact with what become monumental emblems of human strength, dignity and power as seen in the Images of Work and Joy Cometh in the Morning series.
In The Bridge: Stories from the Work Project Administration, The Gift of Lineage and An Offering series each person is ‘dressed’, painted and stitched with fabric like an appliqué quilt. This fiber technique is inspired by the vibrant pieced, striped quilts tradition created by African American female and male artisans. This practice is one of the many residual re/creations of traditional African cloth making. Cloth plays a critical role in the philosophical life of African and African Diasporic people. Nigerian scholar Rowland Abiodun (2004) observes that “among all items of dress, cloth is the only one with the attribute of immortality“, further stating how “The socio-religious and aesthetic significance of cloth in Yoruba culture far outweighs its perishability as a material object.” Towns uses textiles to elevate his subjects to a deified state of sainthood thereby ensuring, not just the remembrance of each of his subjects but assuring them each their own immortality. His use of cloth punctuates the politics of remembrance and mindfulness in the resurrection of lost heroes in the battle for freedom, recognition and a sense of agency in American history.
Stephen Towns has mandated for himself a Herculean challenge to create a legacies of remembrance for Americans of African descent. The socio-political and spiritual intent of his artistry is grounded in his use of a symbolic butterfly, as seen throughout all of his paintings, are a lyrical visual trope signifying attributes of change, hope, resurrection, freedom, endurance, liberation, life…and an immortality within the legacy of American history.
Leslie King Hammond, PhD
Robert W. Deutsch Foundation