Last year I took a class with the Sotheby’s Institute of Arts where a fellow student shared the work of Ebony Patterson, and I have not forgotten their work since. One particular piece stands out to me as one that honors the past while challenging the viewer to see the present. In Patterson’s 2014 performance piece called “Invisible Presence, Bling Memories” the artist adorned fifty coffins with colorfully printed tapestries, textiles, embroidered lace and tassels. The bedazzled coffins, grouped together and mounted on picket sticks were paraded through Jamaica’s Carnival to the sounds of dancehall, reggae and soca music in a joyous celebration of the departed.
This is an artistic play on a funeral tradition carried out by Jamaicans from lower incomes. Through beautifully decorated coffins, those who were marginalized or ignored by society are regaled with pagentry in death. It is both a celebration of life and a sober reminder of the lingering societal inequities that are left behind. Patterson’s 2014 performance also served as a protest, which brought awareness to the inequities that exist in Jamaica’s celebration of Carnival itself. With costumes increasingly expensive, the celebration of Carnival has largely shifted to the middle class enabling those with economic means to participate while rendering the event cost prohibitive for others. In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, Patterson elaborates on this theme. “A bling funeral is a powerful declaration of presence, and that is what I have tried to bring to this public space at carnival time.”
Patterson has extended this narrative of visibility in her current exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design. In “Dead Treez”, Patterson creates a vivid display of colorfully ornate mannequins decorating a platform covered in an equally colorful tapestry. The exhibit is a colorful kaleidoscope of gardens, trees, flowers juxtaposed with empty shoes and photographic depictions of murder victims. Again, Patterson evokes the objective to bring visibility and voice to underreported issues of systemic brutality.
Patterson’s “Dead Treez” is on view through April 3.
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.