Q&A with Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson

Patterson discusses ‘Dead Treez’ exhibit on display in CFA


Earlier this year, Jamaican-born artist Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibit Dead Treez came to the UB Art Gallery at the Center for the Arts. The exhibit is currently on display in CFA until May 13.

Patterson’s play with flashy fabricated mannequins and eye-catching tapestries challenges viewers. The themes are relative to dancehall as well as death. On Wednesday, Patterson talked about her art with curator Lauren Haynes in the CFA’s Black Box Theatre.

Before her conversation, she sat down with The Spectrum to discuss her art.

The influence of dancehall in her work.

“As a typical young person who is interested in popular culture and popular culture being developed from working class spaces, the music that was coming out [in the ’90s] was dancehall. Dancehall in many ways became a window to seeing these other spaces. At its core, thinking about what popular culture does and allows for so many people through its fashion.

Through its story-telling and music, it allows for a possibility for everyday people to rise up out of their circumstance. That has always been incredibly interesting to me – the way fashion is used as this political tool to create a sense of visibility for so many who are deemed invisible because of their social standing”

‘Swag Swag Krew’ installation in Dead Treez exhibit

“It came from this intersection which thought about gangs as this alternate family and the spaces which come from these macho groupings. Within the group [of mannequins], there is a suggestion of kids and teenagers. I’m trying to complicate the narrative by suggesting that the boys are looking to these adult males and this is how they’re learning about their expectations.

The expectations are also conflated because the ideas about the macho are changing on the surface. They’re wearing fitted clothing that is incredibly flashy, highly patterned, and baroque. If you think about the beginning of the millennial when the term ‘metrosexual’ became popular, that is essentially when we started to see the shift on the male form, when the male body was kind of reconsidering what garb was deemed for men.

Of course, popular culture was what was mobilizing these changes. Even though the language or conversations around masculine expectations were the same, the clothing was moving. The surface of the male was changing but the expectations did not shift around that. So that’s where the impetus came from.”

The use of ‘bling’ in the exhibit

“When Lil’ Wayne coined the term ‘bling bling,’ bling was all about prettiness – it was all about shine, jewelry and lavishness. Anything that suggested your access and extended your status.

There is all of this investment in material culture but within these cultures, there is a way of pushing back at the culture that sits opposite to them. In many ways, these spaces become an equalizer that is very much about performing and showing. I’m not just thinking of bling in relation to shine, I’m thinking about all the things that are relation to adornment.”

Skin’s role in ‘Swag Swag Krew’

“There was a rise of tattooing at home, because of lightening. People were lightening their skin so they could wear tattoos. The idea was that if your skin was too dark, nobody could see tattoos.

People could also see the function of covering up. If they had scarring from lightening, tattoos would beautify these things that are embellishing skin in response to all these traumas that are happening to their skin. In many ways, the skin started to take on the same kind of equation as the clothing. It started to sit in the same place.”

Inspiration for the tapestries in Dead Treez

“My father passed and on the day I buried my father, I also happened upon a crime scene. I had to deal with this personal idea of loss and witness a loss that seemed communal. After that, I started becoming more aware of these images of people who were brutally murdered, that were being circulated coming from all over.

What I thought was very disturbing was people would click and share these things. I remember a friend of mine who had an image of a young boy as his profile picture and I remember snapping at him like ‘What if that was your nephew, how would you feel if some random stranger had your nephew’s mutilated body as a profile picture?’”

There was also my Of 72 Project which was based around the killings in a working class community, the summer when my father fell incredibly ill. The killings had happened during a state incursion in Tivoli Gardens (in Kingston). We were under Marshall Law for several days, the government was seeking one person who was associated with this community, the ‘don’ of the community.

He was being sought after to face drug and gun charges in the United States. In the search for him, they killed 73 civilians. The initial number was 73 - 72 men and 1 woman. In those numbers, it became very clear who the targets were. This was a time when I was at home, people called into the radio totally traumatized saying police were kicking off the doors, killing people, dragging young men and killing them.

Going back and looking at the number, it raised real questions for me. I had made 73 objects where you could see who these people were. Between 2011 and 2012, I was raising questions about who are these people and what does it mean to not acknowledge people simply because of where they’re from. It wasn’t until the incursion happened that people started hearing things and questions started getting raised.”

‘Implicating’ the viewer through her exhibit

“Looking at these images that these images that were coming up on the Internet started raising questions to about this, who are these people? What does it mean for people to be sharing these images without any sense of engagement?

In many ways, the picture becomes an object so we no longer recognize the object, it becomes something in the distance that we become removed from. ‘The Passing’ was the first of the works and that was inspired by the passing of my father - that was the very first image where the body started to disappear. When I started thinking about the implications of using a similar kind of format of using the imagery, implicating the viewer and catching them by using the tropes of beauty, shine, lushness, bravado.

Using all of those facades as a trap, where the viewer is lured by its beauty. There then becomes a moment of tension that I’m trying to create, that’s why the images are on the floor – to implicate the viewer as a witness.”

Why students should view Dead Treez, what ideas they can take from the exhibit

“I hope they can somehow engage with this, there might be some sensitivity that can come from thinking about how you engage with information or the person who is sitting next to you. Seeing people’s humanity and who they are, not these projections. It’s very easy to fall into stereotypes and it requires no work. That is what art spaces are supposed to do, they are supposed to make you work. I’m asking, generally, that people look further past the surface like ‘Yeah, it’s pretty but so what?’

Students should take advantage of coming here to see exhibitions, not just mine because this [gallery] is an extension of their learning and education. That is why you’re here, to learn.”

Benjamin Blanchet is the Asst. Arts Editor and can be reached at benjamin.blanchet@ubspectrum.com