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In Dazzling Speed Exhibition, Ebony Patterson Explores Race, Gender, Dignity Through Art

Sarah Lyon/Speed Art Museum

“...while the dew is still on the roses…,” the Ebony G. Patterson exhibition currently on view at the Speed Art Museum, is an impressive survey of the Jamaican-born artist’s work presented within the lush and mysterious setting of a night garden. Patterson, who used to teach at the University of Kentucky, transforms the stark white gallery into an immersive environment, covering the walls in an inky blue wallpaper with tesselated images of wilting white blooms and lavishly adorns the space with silk flowers and foliage in gestures of botanical decadence.

It is a night garden that dazzles at the same time it defies an easy beauty, a social and political space that Patterson uses to investigate themes of visibility and invisibility; of gender, race and violence; of death, dignity and, ultimately, remembrance. 

The show is anchored by two video works, the first of which is a three-channel projection titled The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative. Set in a verdant, tropical wilderness, the video shows two male figures, one dressed in white and one in black and both masked with feathered headpieces, taking turns caring for a small baby.

Patterson seems to be gently subverting the Eden narrative by depicting not a banished couple but one in harmony with the uncultivated environment, and by portraying the relationship between the two men as a valid and natural form of sexuality that is outside of and unconstrained by societal norms.

Her Untitled Species VIII (Ruff) serves as a bridge between the primordial space the video occupies and the contemporary urban subjects that comprise the rest of the show. This large-format portrait depicts a young Jamaican man, his skin bleached in a dance hall practice designed to attract the light of video cameras and thus make himself more visible. Violet and burgundy flowers enshroud his elongated neck and shoulders while rhinestones constellate on his face in echoes of tribal costume and animal mimicry, physical modifications adopted to blend in and to survive.

This tension between the visible and invisible is heightened in Patterson’s Dead Tree in a Forest..., a mixed-media piece replete with undulating ribbons of patterned paper and shimmering lacework, all set against an emerald green background and cloaked in an abundance of glitter. Obscured within this effulgence is a dark fallen figure, elaborately clothed but anonymous, and encircled with a golden halo usually reserved for Christian saints. The corpse is surrounded by the patterned silhouettes of human witnesses and a solitary rooster (or cockerel), symbol of masculinity as well as betrayal.

In a culture where both victims and witnesses of gang violence are often from marginalized groups and murders receive attention mostly through individual sharing on social media platforms, Patterson uses her work to make the invisible, visible. By rendering such violent acts with ravishing beauty, she bestows an honor and dignity to those on the forgotten fringes and gives their lives (and deaths) the recognition denied to them by those in power.

 These ideas take on a denser complexity in Patterson’s tapestry works, oversized technicolor fantasies she embellishes with sequins and beads, tassels and brooches, fabric and flowers and lace. Hidden within this neo-Baroque bricolage are the bare limbs and extravagantly clothed bodies of the forgotten victims.

Through her choice of tapestry, a luxury object traditionally used to depict ancient myths and Christian narratives, Patterson is elevating the disenfranchised and situating their stories among those of gods and saints. Rescued from anonymity, these deaths are given new life in the artist’s hands, fixed in a visual form with the physical durability to speak to generations to come.

At the same time, there is an urgency to Patterson’s tapestry work — a dynamic energy amplified by the silhouetted edges of flowers, leaves and limbs that alter traditional rectilinear boundaries and interact with the patterned wallpaper in yet another layer of camouflage. There is a sense that Patterson is racing to commit these stories to visual memory before they disappear altogether.

Her recent work assumes even greater dimension in both its physicality and its emotional resonance. Created specifically for this show, ...moments we cannot bury… includes five Styrofoam mounds, almost like small boulders, covered in vivid red, yellow, orange and white flowers. Studded among them are frosted glass replicas of baby hands and bare feet along with personal items such as a tiny shoe and a purse. Patterson places the mounds on metal stands so they rest just above our heads and create the unsettling feeling that we are walking among the dead.

The show’s final work, ...three kings weep…, is a three-channel video presented in a narrow room with spare black benches positioned before a triptych of oversized vertical screens. The arrangement evokes a mood of quiet reverence, as if we had walked into a small church.

On the screens, three black men stand naked from the waist up in front of a tranquil floral wallpaper accented with dimensional butterflies that idly flutter their wings. The men stare at the camera with a mixture of vulnerability and resilience, faint tears silently staining their faces. Slowly, the video begins to play backward to show them taking on the armaments of dress: silk shirts and vests in vibrant colors and elaborate patterns, glitzy jewelry and striking head wear.

At several moments throughout the piece, we hear a young Jamaican reading lines from a poem by fellow countryman Claude McKay. “If we must die,” the voice implores, “oh, let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain…”

Patterson’s work ensures it won’t. By bringing light to the forgotten victims of post-colonial violence and depicting her subjects with a grace and dignity usually reserved for saints and royalty, she creates awareness of these injustices at the same time she enlarges our capacity for compassion. Through Patterson’s work, we become witnesses not only to the world’s horrors and ugliness, but also to its profound beauty, persistent as life itself.

Ebony Patterson's "...while the dew is still on the roses..." is on exhibit at the Speed Art Museum until January 5, 2020. For more information about the exhibition, click here.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.