Historically and even presently, world politics and global security have played a huge role in the way one perceives and acknowledges a group of people. Sometimes political situations become so aggravated that they can negatively impact a thriving community that was perhaps once living in harmony and respect. Unfortunately, such situations can cause a divide in society and encourage violence and hatred towards one another that might last for generations.
This phenomenon was experienced with the 9/11 attacks, which shocked the world to its core and made the war on terrorism a reality for everyone worldwide. The pain of loss and fear of life became so consuming that suddenly the entire course of the world seemed to change. America, which was previously regarded as the hub of all cultures and was essentially a melting pot, seemed to have reached its boiling point, causing the pot to overflow. While the head of state put in efforts to somehow try and rectify the situation, the American community suffered a huge blow and became burdened with the mess created. Undoubtedly, Muslim communities worldwide experienced marginalization as suddenly the wave of Islamophobia took over, whose repercussions can still be felt.
However, the fascinating thing about art is that it does not discriminate. Creativity and design can force one to admire art for what it is and perhaps even aid in humanizing a group of people and their culture. That is exactly what evoked a sense of admiration for Tricia Lynn Townes when she came across an exhibition of Islamic art at her local museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC.
Admittedly, this was before the 9/11 attacks; however, Townes could not deny that Islam brought with it a culture heavily doused in art and design. Her fascination with this form of art forced her to think about how Muslim communities perceived and acknowledged themselves in American society. “We were meant to be a place where various cultures can come together and be treated equally under the law, where everyone has an equal shot to make a peaceful and prosperous life for themselves and their families,” Townes expressed in an interview with Arts Help.
This inspiration would eventually translate into her renowned collection, Designs in American Identity. which aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of creating Sustainable Cities and Communities. Townes' work is a step in the right direction when it comes to recognizing cultures, beliefs, and traditions through the expression of art and design.
When the 9/11 attacks happened, Townes could not deny that a shift in American culture could be strongly sensed as the Muslim community became a target of misrepresentation and hatred. It seems the ingenuity that Townes found in Muslim art was so intense that she continued to work on her paintings. “I continued working in the same vein, but with the added focus of the work acting as a window of sorts into the beauty of Islamic design and culture, highlighting the fact that like the two-sided designs, there are at least two sides to any story; there is much good to be found in Islamic culture, and it and its people didn’t deserve to be demonized en masse,” she shared with Arts Help.
Townes is a native of North Carolina who now resides in the state of Tennessee. She always admired the design and expression of culture and tradition through art. Townes describes her technique as using two-sided Mylar sheets to be able to paint on both sides. On one side, she uses the original colours of a traditional design, and on the other, she uses the flags of the American flag to create a bridge between both designs. “In the U.S., we don’t have specific cultural designs except for those of our state and national flags. I wanted to reference the U.S. without hitting the viewer over the head and to allow the contour lines of the designs to spotlight cultural specificity,” she expressed to Arts Help.
American Freedom Song is a vibrant painting that is part of her collection, Designs in American Identity. According to Townes, the design showcases the vibrant colours of Islamic art on one side, juxtaposed with the hues of the American flag on the other, aiming to accentuate the richness of Islamic culture and portray its community as esteemed citizens of the United States.
Eventually, Townes expanded her vision and became aware of other cultures that were subject to marginalization in American culture. In 2018, she started exploring similar themes, extending her work to encompass other marginalized cultures in the United States, starting with designs tailored to the African American community. “I expanded to Native American, Chinese, Tibetan, Chicano, and East Indian cultures as well. My choices depended upon the cultures whose designs resonated with me because of their beauty.” Townes expressed to Arts Help.
One of her heavily embedded paintings is A Conversation Between AMAN, APU and AH LAM In Which They Discuss Mutual Amity and Come to Terms 2, painted in 2018. According to Townes, she was inspired by “Apu,” an honorary title of Tibetan origin used for Apu Hralpo, who was a skilled practitioner capable of transmuting the five poisons through meditative practices. She expressed that she envisions this character facilitating a dialogue between India and China wherein the Tibetan territories are restored to Tibetan sovereignty and governance. “I hope that people of all three cultures will participate in talks and that some of those will be from the U.S. because I want to see our citizens do good in the world,” she said.
Likewise, Justice Dance, painted in 2019, is also a brilliant piece of work by Townes that forwards her intent of representing African Americans and paying respect to their ancestors belonging to West African countries. “This work has Malian mud cloth and Nigerian designs. By harmonizing the compositions, the hope is that those cultures will be at peace,” Townes said to Arts Help.
While global media and political instability might create a perception of a group of people, art and design can also contribute to shaping a society. Art essentially acts as a window that allows one to peek into a culture’s most intimate being and help structure their roots and identity. “I hope to promote peace and inclusion in American culture by reminding U.S. citizens that our country was founded as an experiment in religious tolerance and inclusion at its very roots. When light shines through their transparent surfaces, the paintings have a stained-glass effect that reminds viewers of the sacred nature of this American experiment,” Townes expressed with Arts Help.