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In their exquisite quilts, the artists Ramsess and Stephen Towns suture black memory onto the chaos of the present day. While Towns emphasizes handwork in his study of black lives, Ramsess overwhelms the viewer with the beauty of that which has been lost—each urging their unique interpretations of black history and mourning.
Stephen Towns believes in the hand-stitch. The most striking work in his show is Birth of a Nation (2014), made up of a Betsy Ross flag overlaid with the image of a black woman nursing a white infant. It hangs hovering above a mound of soil, in a nod to the U.S. Flag Code’s directive that “the flag should never touch anything beneath it.” The woman stands as tall as the flag’s 13 stars—Towns’ way of insisting that she is just as deserving of the Flag Code’s additional mandate that “[n]o disrespect should be shown.” Towns’ citation of the flag and elevation of the woman mandate that we understand black and female enslaved people as birthers of this nation—they are just as venerable as the most august of symbolic American figures, Betsy Ross included.
Just as significant is what we see upon leaning closer: an outline of ravishingly imperfect yellow-white stitches define the woman’s ebony profile. Such stitch work, evidence of Towns’ hand, runs through the 11 other gingham-and-indigo “story quilts” in the gallery, which detail marches and sermons. By exposing the signs of his labor, Towns subtly argues that equality must be won through slow and patient effort.
In contrast, Ramsess employs precise machine stitching and kaleidoscopic color to confront the viewer with an elegantly finished panorama. His color-drenched textiles create a resplendent and polished hagiography of black people cut down by state violence. His show’s tour de force is The Gathering (2012), a restyling of da Vinci’s The Last Supper, where young black victims of racist violence (George Stinney, Jr., Emmett Till, Latasha Harlins) share in Trayvon Martin’s last meal of Skittles and AriZona tea. In depicting this scene, Ramsess exercises a mastery that leaves the observer in the same state of heart-racking awe as that experienced by church worshipers.
Together, Towns and Ramsess offer two guides to black and American history and the griefs that both include. Towns’ work guides us through our anger by reminding us of how we rebuild our lives through a steady and stumbling effort that is imperfect but still beautiful. Ramsess offers another route, one perhaps more in keeping with our immediate feelings of outrage and catharsis: he is sure that the viewer knows that what was taken from us was holy, and that its loss should bring us to our knees.
Stephen Towns: Rumination and a Reckoning and Ramsess: The Gathering run from October 12, 2019–January 25, 2020 at Art + Practice (3401 W. 43rd Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90008).