Provocative Nat Turner-Inspired Portraits Fuel Debate After Their Removal

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Stephen Towns, “All is Vanity” (2016), acrylic oil, metal leaf on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College unless otherwise noted)

In 1967, author William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel retold the story of a real historic event — the 1831 slave revolt of Southampton County, Virginia — narrated from the imagined perspective of Turner, the educated and highly religious slave who led our nation’s bloodiest slave revolt.

Although white militias ended the rebellion within a few days, the rebel slaves liberated a number of local plantations and killed between 55 and 65 white slave owners, including women and children. After two months in hiding, Turner was captured and later hanged, and his corpse was subsequently beheaded, quartered, and flayed (his body parts were auctioned off and his skin was made into collectible items). In the aftermath, approximately 120 slaves and free African Americans were murdered in the region by white militias and mobs as retribution, and southern state legislatures passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and restricting the civil rights of free black people in order to prevent future revolts.

As with most American history, Nat Turner’s story has been told and retold by white male authors, including Styron, with fewer known works of historical research, art, or literature about him by black authors. It is within this context that the Baltimore-based, African-American artist Stephen Towns made his own series of paintings and quilts based on Turner’s rebellion, after he received research funding from a Rubys Grant in 2015.

The Joy Cometh in the Morning series presents six painted figures, each representing a martyr from the rebellion — individuals who made a choice to wage war for their freedom for personal and spiritual reasons, knowing that their chances for success or survival were zero. In Towns’s vision, each wears a noose around their necks, held in place by one raised fist, a gesture of black power. In this pose, the artist empowers each individual to be seen as master of their own destiny, to be read as tragic heroes, and to command respect and admiration in the face of sacrifice.

On view at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery in a solo show titled A Migration, the series (one of several in the show) recently provoked a complaint from an African-American employee. The artist responded by asking gallery director Laura Amussen to remove the paintings on August 20, and to replace them with taped squares on the gallery wall where each had been. This decision has inspired divisive reactions on social media that in many ways recall the debates that arose from Styron’s novel 50 years ago.

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StephenTowns, “I Fear no Evil” (2016), acrylic oil, metal leaf, bristol board on panel, 12 x 12 inches

Although there is much to learn from Nat Turner’s story, it presents a tinderbox of conflicting emotions. Is it an account of bravery? Does it promote black pain? Is it a shameful story that white America would like to forget? It’s no surprise that authors and artists have found Turner to be an inspiring muse, but equally predictable that the resulting works are controversial.

Styron himself received his fair share of criticism during his lifetime. Initially, his Nat Turner novel received widespread praise; it received glowing reviews from the nation’s top newspapers, the movie rights were quickly sold to 20th Century Fox, and it won the Pulitzer. The author received acclaim from African-American audiences, in particular from his friend and colleague James Baldwin, and was given an honorary degree at Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, which he claimed was his greatest achievement, especially as a self-identifying Southerner.

However, after the summer of 1968 brought the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and rioting ensued in cities across the US, the author’s legacy took a U-turn. Because of Confessions and the controversy it produced, Styron became a reviled and contentious literary figure for the rest of his life. Black individuals and groups protested the book for being historically inaccurate and disrespectful, full of stereotypes and cliché, and Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a volume of essays that were initially ignored and belittled by mainstream press, but grew to build an enduring debate around issues of race within literature and art in general.

It’s worth noting that Styron’s book was based on an earlier account by another white male author, lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray, who visited Turner in jail after his capture. He later wrote and published The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. This is the sole historical text that documents Turner’s story directly; it presents conflicts of interest because Gray was the attorney for others accused in participating in the revolt.

Styron based much of his novel on Gray’s account. When describing the start of the revolt, Turner claimed to have been called to action by Christ, who “had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.”

When Gray asked Turner, now imprisoned, if he found himself mistaken in enacting the revolt, he replied, “Was not Christ crucified?”

Despite his claim to martyrdom, Turner never quite achieved this celebrated status. Rather, as Towns’s story reveals, Turner has remained a controversial figure after all these years.

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Stephen Towns, “The Revolt” (2016), fiber and glass beads, 34.5 x 27 inches

I first encountered Towns’s Joy Cometh in the Morning series at Galerie Myrtis, in his solo show titled Take Me Away to the Stars in November 2016. The entire show was based on several years of Towns’s research on Turner, and his desire to promote awareness and healing.

The front gallery space was filled with the artist’s magnificent quilts, which imagined different vignettes from Turner’s life, humanizing him and avoiding depictions of violence. These works are powerful because of the comfort they offer through their harmonious arrangement of patterned fabric and domestic familiarity, with figures rendered as silhouettes. Each quilt allows the viewer to grow emotionally attached to it before realizing the violence and controversy, the inherent feelings of conflict and remorse that Turner’s story brings.

But the six paintings in the back gallery were a sucker punch. Unlike the quilts, the Joy Cometh series is rendered in oil paint and portrays the slave rebels in highly realistic likenesses based on Towns himself and five others who modeled for him. Each painting depicts the subject’s face at actual size and, hung at eye level, the individuals — three men and three women — return your gaze with eyes that are confrontational, sparkling with intelligence and determination.

Stephen Towns, “Shall It Declare Thy Truth” (2016), acrylic oil, metal leaf, bristol board canvas and paper on panel, 24 x 18 inches

The Joy Cometh paintings are deliberately provocative and designed to challenge commonly accepted notions of history and race in the US. They are uncomfortably realistic and they inflame your emotions, no matter what your racial or familial history. While at Galerie Myrtis, these paintings were written about in multiple Baltimore publications, and, as far as I know, attracted little controversy and were widely praised. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Galerie Myrtis specializes in work by African-American artists, and that the gallery’s typical audience regularly sees and consumes contemporary art.

In late August, at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery, the same paintings provoked a completely different response. A Goucher employee deemed the paintings offensive, stating that she shouldn’t have to look at black faces with nooses around their necks at work, leading to a mediated discussion between the employee, the gallery director, and AU professor and artist Zoë Charlton in which the employee expressed that these paintings made her work environment feel abusive and uncomfortable.

After he was informed of the complaint, Towns issued a statement and requested that the paintings be removed, but that taped squares remain where the paintings were originally hung. It’s unclear whether the college would have insisted upon the paintings’ removal, but it was an unfortunate possibility. Rather than forcing the college’s hand, Towns chose to remove his own works.

“It has come to my attention that the work from my Joy Cometh in the Morning series has offended staff at Goucher College,” says Towns in a statement placed in the gallery alongside the empty frames. “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.”

On social media, Towns’s preemptive actions and statement have been applauded for being sensitive and generous to the offended employee, but they have also spawned inflammatory dialogue. Nonetheless, the discussion, although uncomfortable at times, has been wide-ranging and productive.

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The taped squares placed in lieu of Stephen Towns’s painting at Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Some online commenters predictably focused on Goucher College’s failure to engage in public discourse as an educational space — and the decline of college campuses in this regard (“Is Goucher now going to remove every thought provoking book in its library because someone finds the book offensive?” one person wrote on Instagram). Other discussions revolved around the role of art within society — and an institution’s responsibility to properly support productive and positive dialogue for all those who come into contact with the art on display, not just students and faculty.

Sadly, our discussion now revolves around the removal of the paintings rather than the content or merit of the paintings themselves, but this, too, appears to offer new solutions and opportunities for artists, curators, galleries, and colleges, moving forward. We can only wonder if the paintings would’ve remained if there had been, for instance, a written statement preemptively placed alongside these specific works to offer context. If more resources in the form of educational programming, discussions, or publications had been offered to college employees and the larger community, perhaps the students, faculty, and staff could’ve considered the paintings’ aesthetic value and historical content instead of blank squares and an artist’s statement.

Stephen Towns’s statement at Rosenberg Gallery, Goucher College (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

One commenter expressed on Facebook that “This is not our fight. This is about the free exchange between an individual artist and his audience. I regret the outcome, but the artist’s wishes need to and should be honored.”

This brings us back to basic questions, such as whether it is the artist’s responsibility to make the audience feel comfortable. Is it possible to exhibit provocative art and offend no one?

As history teaches us, invoking Nat Turner’s historical legacy is a divisive endeavor, but we are in dire need of diverse perspectives and interpretations of him, especially by artists of color who can attempt to translate such a contentious historic narrative into an empathetic contemporary context. Towns’s paintings are hard to look at; they successfully mirror just a fraction of the violence and terror experienced on a daily basis by thousands of Americans who were owned as slaves.

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Stephen Towns, “The Righteous and the Wise, and their Works are in the Hand of God” (2016), acrylic oil, metal leaf on canvas, 40 x 30 inches

Although it was originally ridiculed in mainstream press, the slim book of essays William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond gained a national readership and inspired protest, dialogue, and controversy. The 10 authors were comprised of academics, editors, psychiatrists, and librarians, and offered numerous reasons to reject Styron’s depiction of Turner, especially his use of “myths, racial stereotypes and literary clichés even in the best intentioned and most enlightened minds,” said contributing author Mike Thelwell. “The real ‘history’ of Nat Turner, and indeed of black people, remains to be written.”

Styron’s novel spawned agonizing conversations about authorship, race, history, and art in the US, foreshadowing decades of debate and dialogue. Although it was contentious, the conversation between Styron’s Nat Turner book and the Ten Black Writers response helped to generate a new genre of fiction featuring African-American authors including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Edward P. Jones’s Known World, Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose, and even recently Coleson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

“I do not believe that the right to describe… black people in American society is the private domain of Negro writers,” wrote John A. Williams in Ten Black Writers Respond. But one of the most notable consequences of this critical book of essays is that it helped to create a new space for multiple voices and hundreds of different versions of US history by historians, authors, and artists of diverse backgrounds.

At Goucher College, Towns made the decision to remove his Joy Cometh series from the gallery based on the strong reaction it inspired and his desire to promote healing rather than to inflict pain. But these paintings are powerful because they diverge radically from the comforting version of history that most Americans prefer.

Towns’s actions raise important and conflicting questions for all contemporary artists of conscience, specifically regarding the role of controversial works of art and the appropriate context for its consumption. At Goucher College, the students, faculty, and staff can no longer directly engage with Towns’s paintings. But it remains to be seen whether the work, as well as its removal, will continue to inspire a spirited dialogue that yields productive results.

Stephen Towns: A Migration continues at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery (1021 Dulaney Valley Rd, Baltimore) through October 16. An artist’s receptions will be held on Tuesday, September 12 at the gallery. 

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