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Close Look: Ebony Patterson

In another insightful essay for our ongoing series 'Close Look,' University of Texas art history PhD candidate, Nicole Smythe-Johnson, takes us into Suzanne McFayden's art collection for a close look at the work of Ebony Patterson. This examination of '…sunsets and monarchs come to feast, snakes come to discover as she remains lost in plain sight…,' explores characteristics that Patterson's work has become known for-- namely, the ways in which she draws attention to the relationship between beauty and devastation, and notions of what is real, and what is fake. In other words, this examination provides an opportunity to look closely at what makes Patterson's work stand out.

We are grateful to Suzanne McFayden for granting us VIP access to Patterson's work.

…sunsets and monarchs come to feast, snakes come to discover as she remains lost in plain sight…, Ebony Patterson 2019. © Ebony Patterson. Image courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

More than Meets the Eye: Ebony G. Patterson’s …sunsets and monarchs come to feast, snakes come to discover as she remains lost in plain sight…

By Nicole Smythe-Johnson

At first glance, Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson’s …sunsets and monarchs come to feast, snakes come to discover as she remains lost in plain sight… (2019) looks like a tropical bouquet gone wild. Anthuriums bigger than your head, ginger lilies the length of your forearm, butterflies and parrots form a riot of color, shape and texture. The layers of hand-cut and torn paper and poster board, the feathered butterflies and moth specimens, the bits of fabric collaged into the composition and hanging off in strips are reminiscent of a tropical rainforest, the work seems to flirt with stereotype.[1]

Upon closer inspection, however, more sinister elements emerge. In the lower right corner snakes slither through the foliage, dangerously close to a chicken, bringing predator-prey dynamics to mind. In the corner opposite to that one, a piece of floral cloth cut in the shape of a child’s feet jut out eerily. To refer to corners might suggest that the piece is rectangular, but it’s not a standard shape. It’s a sort of splatter on the wall, comprised of equal parts positive and negative space. Just below eye level, near the center of the work white space forms a hand reaching out, its stubby fingers again seeming to be that of a child. Bullet-hole-like spots also riddle the piece. Finally, there’s that body, or the image of one, a child-sized, brown-skinned body, lying face-down at the center of the bottom third of the work. You could miss it. The child is wearing bright yellow and green clothing that blends into with the rest of the composition, and foliage overlays her body. One has the impression that any minute the foliage will grow to completely obscure our view.

This play between the deceptive beauty of the tropics, violence and excess is a signature of Patterson’s work. Her penchant for foliage, pattern and even glitter, in some of her earlier work, has prompted comparisons to African American painter Kehinde Wiley. The comparisons is not entirely unwarranted, many artists of color use an aesthetic of excess to challenge Euro-centric conceptions of classical beauty. Patterson’s citation of Jamaican dancehall aesthetics is also in step with Wiley’s citation of African-American fashion and culture in his paintings.

This play between the deceptive beauty of the tropics, violence and excess is a signature of Patterson’s work.

Where the two depart, however, is Patterson’s longstanding formal engagement with craft and collage, as a way of indexing the gendered constructs around artistic production. Patterson’s laborious process of cutting, gluing and tearing largely found items into her compositions is reminiscent of scrapbooking and, especially in her earlier flags and tapestries, quilting. Her inclusion of birds is also likely an indication of her interest in gender, as the artist has long been fascinated with the way that birds’ gender presentation seems the inverse of standard western norms around gender presentation. Where in western societies gender norms dictate that women adorn themselves elaborately in an effort to attract the attention of men, among birds it is the male who adorns himself in a bid for female attention.

Patterson has talked about the lush beauty of her works as a kind of seduction, a way of inviting viewers into what appears to be a charmed environment, only to force an encounter with violence. She has said of this aspect of her work, “I was really interested in creating these two contradictions that somehow capture the viewer in a question. Like when they would say, ‘Oh, it’s really beautiful.’ But is it? Is it though?”[2] Though Patterson is based primarily in the U.S., she still spends a great deal of time in Jamaica, and much of her work references the politics and culture of the island. As a fellow Jamaican, this beauty-violence dialectic that is so foundational to Patterson’s work has always struck me as an excellent description of Jamaican life. Though Jamaica remains a favored spot among tourists, just this year the island was named “the World's Leading Family, Cruise and Wedding Destination” at the annual World Travel Awards,[3] the nation has for several years now held the more dubious honor of the second highest murder rate in the world.[4] How these two facts coincide, and have done for at least two decades, is anybody’s guess. This strange duality is not unique to Jamaica either, it is something of a regional problem. Of the fifteen countries with the highest murder rates in the world, nine are in the Caribbean, a region best known as a tourist destination.[5]

“I was really interested in creating these two contradictions that somehow capture the viewer in a question. Like when they would say, ‘Oh, it’s really beautiful.’ But is it? Is it though?”

For me, Patterson’s work really gets at this underbelly of the tropical paradise mystique. Her viewers are lured in, much as tourists are, by the opulence of her works facilitated by their often overwhelming scale, but then hidden in there are limbs, bullet holes, a not so subtle menace. In juxtaposing the violence and the beauty of the tropics, Patterson’s work poses multiple questions. What lengths do governments go to in order to maintain these islands’ status as tropical getaways, safe for tourists to let their guards down and put their feet up in. Who pays for those privileges?

In earlier work like Invisible Presence: Bling Memories (2014), Patterson has looked at state-sanctioned violence. Invisible Presence references the 2010 Tivoli Incursion in Kingston, Jamaica that saw the Jamaican police and military pitted against the leader of a drug cartel based in Tivoli Gardens, one of the city’s most notorious low-income neighborhoods. The head of the cartel, Christopher “Dudus” Coke, was wanted for extradition to the United States, and the stated aim of the mission was to retrieve him from his lair. Over two days security forces mercilessly besieged the small community, killing at least 76 civilians, 44 of which have been ruled extra-judicial, and wounding at least 35 others.[6] Four members of the security forces were killed and over 500 arrests were made.[7] Coke was not found, though he was eventually arrested and extradited weeks later.

To be clear, Tivoli is hours away from the nearest tourist attraction or beach town. Patterson’s point is not that tourists may be subject to the kind of violence that Jamaica’s poorest people experience, she is, in fact, focused on the fact that they will not. For some it’s a paradise, for many others, it’s a prison. Her practice insists on thinking and seeing these two realities at the same time— the visitor’s paradise and all that goes into maintaining it, and the native’s hellhole. Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid’s canonical text, A Small Place (1988), also explores the difference between the native and visitor experiences of places billed as “paradise,” establishing this set of interrogations as an important genre of Caribbean criticism and cultural production.

Another important feature of Patterson’s work is a play between the genuine and the fake, this work includes both actual moth specimens and story-book like illustrations that have been scaled up. As I leaned in and crouched to look at the child-sized body, I realized it was a scaled-up image of a doll. I even recognized the specific doll as one of a line of dolls that speak in Jamaican Patois (also known as Jamaican creole). The “Island Dolls Plus Collection” was released in 2017, one of Jamaica’s most murderous years on record.[8] They created quite a sensation since they were marketed as a way to provide young Jamaicans with toys that look and speak like them, and a way to instill national pride through their reggae-music backed, patois speech recordings.[9] This particular doll, with her Afro-puffs and athletic clothing in the colors of the Jamaican flag references the nation’s distinguished record of athletic achievement, particularly in track and field.

This kind of branding and commercialization is very common in Jamaica, where culture is a growing pull for tourists. The Jamaican government is constantly looking for ways to monetize the nation’s global hyper-visibility, dubbing it “Brand Jamaica.”[10] Nonetheless, the “brand” is beset by troubling contradictions. Much of Jamaica’s most celebrated culture emerges from parts of the society that are routinely overlooked and/or brutally policed by Jamaica’s power brokers. Jamaica’s music, athletes and food were developed by the island’s poorest people, those most vulnerable to violence and most often subject to state-sponsored violence.

Much like Jamaica, Patterson’s …sunsets and monarchs come to feast, snakes come to discover as she remains lost in plain sight… may seem like a garden of delights, but there is certainly more than meets the eye. Taking some time to give this work a close look yields secrets you may not have wanted to know. Keep that in mind the next time you’re daydreaming about getting away to “the islands.”

_________________________________________________________________ [1] A kind of stereotyping of place that art historian Krista Thompson has called “tropicalizing” in her book An Eye for the Tropics (Duke University Press, 2007).

[2] Lori DeGolyer, “Holding the Gaze: Ebony G. Patterson Interviewed by Lori DeGolyer,” BOMB, 2 June 2020.

[3] See “Jamaica wins top accolades at World Travel Awards 2020,” Jamaica Observer, 30 November 2020.

[4] Amber Pariona, “Murder Rate by Country,” World Atlas, 9 January 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interim Report to Parliament concerning Investigations into the Conduct of the Security Forces during the State Of Emergency declared May, 2010 – West Kingston/Tivoli Gardens ‘Incursion’ – the Killing of Mr. Keith Oxford Clarke and Related Matters, Office of the Public Defender: Kingston, Jamaica, 29 April 2013.

[7] Ross Sheil and Caroline Davies, “Kingston residents trapped inside homes as Jamaican death toll rises,” The Guardian, 26 May 2010.

[8] “High homicide rate, but Jamaica not ‘murder capital of the world',” Loop Jamaica, 31 May 2020.

[9] Rocheda Bartley, “Island Dolls Launch Keisha And Kelly Patois-Speaking Dolls,” The Jamaica Gleaner, 22 November 2017.

[10] Tanesha Mundle, “Gov’t Moves To Monetise Brand Jamaica,” Jamaica Information Service, 19 November 2019.

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