Ebony G. Patterson: All the right moves

Ebony G. Patterson’s dancehall portraits are spectacles of riotous colour and texture; Nicholas Laughlin investigates her international art career

First you notice their stares. Some coolly assessing, others cautious, one or two perhaps mocking. Even the ones who wear dark glasses clearly have you fixed in their relentless gaze.

It’s distinctly unnerving, especially since these piercing eyes are set in bleached-out faces: a sickly pale contrasting with the naturally dark skin of their necks and limbs, their scarlet-painted lips, and the gaudy colours of their clothes. Each is posed in a tableau of riotous patterns and textures, loud and shiny: flowered fabrics in pinks and lime greens, rhinestones, artificial pearls, paper doilies, and plastic lace.

The effect is comic and sinister at the same time. The men’s body language suggests one thing — assertion, aggression — but their colourful, sometimes skin-tight outfits seem to mean something else — an awkward androgyny, a version of drag. Should you look them in the eye, or look away?

The characters whom artist Ebony G. Patterson depicts in series like Gangstas for Life, Gully Godz, and Fambily are exaggerated versions of young men from Jamaica’s rambunctious dancehall scene. In the minds of many middle-class Jamaicans, the immediate associations are poverty, crime, violence, and “slackness.” Depending on where you stand, dancehall culture — not just the music, but its visual aesthetic and moral codes — might look like a form of resistance to class oppression and racism, or a breeding ground for misogyny and homophobia; a symptom of social breakdown, or a matrix for astonishing creative energy. Or all of the above, all at once.

Those contradictions — within dancehall, as well as in the ways people perceive it — are Patterson’s subject matter in the recent works which have boosted her trajectory as a rising star of contemporary Caribbean art. Even to viewers who know next to nothing about the cultural intricacies of twenty-first-century Jamaica, the visual audacity of Patterson’s drawings, installations, and photographs is obvious — recently, a New York Times reviewer called one of her pieces in a group exhibition a “knockout.” What’s most striking is the nimble way Patterson shifts between her revelrous appropriation of dancehall’s visual style — out-blinging bling — and a clear-eyed critique of the social circumstances from which that style emerges.

Her dancehall portraits neither idolise nor parody their subjects. And they aren’t documentary: these characters are posed models, wearing outfits designed by the artist. Yet somehow they seem to penetrate to the heart of the dilemma facing young men from the urban underclass in today’s Caribbean — the region’s most troubled and troubling demographic. What those frank stares really communicate is: we are here, and we’re not going anywhere.

March 1981. The Jamaica Labour Party, led by Edward Seaga, had won a general election a few months before, and the country was still adjusting to the new government; the country’s major culture hero, Bob Marley, was in the last stages of terminal cancer. At this moment of transition, Ebony G. Patterson — the middle initial stands for “Grace” — was born into a typical middle-class family in uptown Kingston.

She recalls a childhood full of creative activities. “I always say my father taught me how to draw birds, and my mother taught me how to draw people.” She took ballet lessons for seven years, and her godmother’s family, who lived next door, were all musicians — “I was always singing.” Patterson tells a story about going with her mother to a bingo game. During a break, when a Michael Jackson song came over the loudspeaker, Patterson jumped up on a table and started dancing. “People thought I was the entertainment.”

“It seems like a very logical thing that I would end up doing something creative.” Her prep school teacher Miss Allen was “a strict woman,” but she encouraged Patterson’s early interest in art. “I remember one summer after grade four I drew every single day. When I went back to school in the new term, I had a hundred drawings to show her.” And she credits her secondary school art teacher, Ian Stone, with helping shape her youthful enthusiasm into a career ambition. “He was a graduate of Edna” — the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts, Jamaica’s national art academy — “and he taught us things in first form that I would encounter again at art school, years later.”

By the time she was a teenager, Patterson knew the direction she wanted to take. “I told my mother I wanted to be an artist and part-time singer.” (She is still a powerful vocalist, even if she doesn’t perform in public.) But her parents, both successful and practical businesspeople, required some convincing. “My father asked me, ‘What you want to go to art school for? You can draw already’ . . . and my mother told me, ‘I think you’d make a good lawyer, because you like to argue.’” With the help of those debating skills, Patterson got her way: in 2000 she started in the painting programme at the Edna Manley College.

It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of established artists and critics. The art historian Veerle Poupeye, now director of the National Gallery of Jamaica, participated in painting critiques at the college. “Ebony stood out for a number of reasons,” Poupeye says, “which included her vibrant, energetic personality. The work was very ambitious and compelling. She was exceptionally articulate about it.” In her second year, Patterson was selected for a Royal Over-Seas League artist’s residency, which took her to Britain. She remembers not only her own emotional reaction to the news, but the impression it made on her parents — this art business was taking her places. The residency gave her the opportunity to work among international peers, but also to see kinds of art she had previously only encountered in books. “I was a sponge,” she says. A small Lucian Freud painting at the Tate in London made a particular impression. “The paint was three inches off the canvas, as if it was melting. I thought, ‘Oh my god, all this paint!’”

Back in Kingston, Patterson was finding herself increasingly engaged with questions of cultural and personal identity — not unusual for a young artist. One series of works from this time, with titles like UntitledQuestions of Blackness, featured jigsaw-puzzle pieces. She was trying, she says, to understand how ideas of what it means to be “black” differ between the Caribbean and other places. Soon she became preoccupied with gender also. “I was very interested in talking about beauty, the grotesque, and the body.”

In 2004, the year Patterson graduated from EMC with an honours diploma, she won a fellowship to join the MFA programme at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. One of her pieces was selected for that year’s Jamaica National Biennial — an important status marker in the Jamaica art world. Two years later, she had her first solo show, at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston. Her work was now drawing public attention at home, but Patterson was creatively restless. She later recalled: “I kind of caught myself thinking, ‘Do I just wanna keep making the same set of things over and over and over again, to what avail?’ So I started thinking, ‘How could I talk about beauty in another way?’” Then she read a Jamaica Gleaner article “about criminals using bleaching to eluding the police, and it just seemed so fascinating to me. Just thinking about this idea that the police are looking for a dark-skinned man, yet a brown-skinned man is out there walking about.”

Skin-bleaching is nothing new in the Caribbean, where levels of melanin have historically correlated to social status. Some women, in particular, have long used special ointments, powders, and soaps — usually harsh chemical concoctions — in an attempt to lighten their faces, often damaging their skin in the process. But now this practice with feminine associations was being taken up by men from Jamaica’s hyper-masculine underclass. “I thought, well, criminality, beauty,” Patterson remembers. “How do I even begin to visually merge these two things?”

It was the creative trigger for the work Patterson is now best known for. She noticed that skin-bleaching was becoming trendy among young men in the dancehall scene, enhanced by meticulous grooming and the occasional use of cosmetics. Meanwhile, the baggy male attire in favour since the 1990s was giving way to form-fitting trousers and shirts, sometimes in near-neon hues. Patterson even saw young men shopping for women’s clothes in downtown Kingston, looking for a tighter fit. In the context of dancehall’s aggressively heterosexual ethos, it seemed at first bizarre.

Commissioned to create a large installation work for an exhibition at the National Gallery in 2008, Patterson took these gender puzzles for her subject. Occupying a whole room on the National Gallery’s ground floor, Bulletz + Shellz juxtaposed life-size portrait photos of young men with bleached faces, specially designed wallpaper with a bold crimson and black pattern, and thousands of tampons strewn on the floor along the walls (Patterson took pains to point out “how they resemble and echo the shape of a bullet”). “Such provocative work made a strong impression,” says Veerle Poupeye, “especially given Jamaica’s ambiguous and at times downright Victorian attitude towards the body and sexuality.” It was a shot across the bow of Jamaican gender conventions, and a dramatic public start to Patterson’s exploration of sexuality through dancehall’s visual culture.

Dancehall music was simply a fact of life for a young Jamaican in the 1980s and 90s. “The music itself was growing up at the same time we were,” Patterson says. Diverging from mainstream reggae in the late 1970s, the dancehall style was at first characterised by a stripped-down sound and recycled rhythms from classic recordings of the 60s. By the mid 1980s, digital rhythms from keyboard synthesisers took over. Dancehall’s subject matter changed rapidly in step with the shift in the sound — and Jamaica’s social realities in the decade of economic “structural adjustment.” A new generation of DJs sang explicitly about violence, sexual exploits, and their desire to get rich quick, by whatever means. It was a long way from the “one love” 1970s vibe of the Wailers, and some reggae purists were incensed. But dancehall music — with its own style of performance, dress, and public behaviour — quickly became the predominant popular music of young Jamaica.

Patterson’s Roman Catholic secondary school, run by nuns, attracted middle-class girls for its solid academic programme, but its downtown location, “close to volatile communities,” meant there was a diverse mix of social backgrounds in the student body. An obsession with music and related dance trends were what they all had in common. The downtown working-class girls impressed Patterson with their fashion sense — “latest this, latest that.” And she was an ardent Bounty Killer fan: if she saw one of his posters on the street, she would peel it off the wall and add it to her collection. But it wasn’t until her early twenties, as a student at EMC, that she experienced her first major public dancehall event, when she went to the notorious Passa Passa street dance. “Bogle was still alive,” she says, referring to the celebrated dancer, and it was a time of resurgence for choreographed street dancing.

“My favourite place is anywhere there is a party,” Patterson once said in a newspaper interview. “I love to see the bodies interact: it is vulgarly interesting, vulgarly beautiful . . . I love our dancehall music, our curse words . . . the words are so rich and so potent.” Patterson’s work also demonstrates that disquieting potency. Other Caribbean artists of her generation share her fascination with popular culture, and a baroque, sometimes even camp sensibility. But her work has a distinct inventiveness, and underpinning the clashing colours and textures is a rigorous sense of composition. Patterson was, after all, trained as a painter, and she says she sees most of these works as paintings — “just not in the medium of paint.”

Her earliest dancehall portraits were in fact mixed-media drawings. “But I felt like the work needed something else.” Partly because drawing or painting inevitably “becomes about resemblance” — the artist’s skill in creating her subject’s likeness. Patterson wants her audience to focus not on who her models “really” are — many are her friends or fellow artists — but on the paradoxes these characters represent. She began posing them in elaborately constructed sets and photographing them — “even though I’m not a photographer.”

That was just the beginning of her experiments. For her Gully Godz series, she rendered her images in woven tapestries, exuberantly embellished with artificial flowers, sequins, and tassel fringes. Visiting Port of Spain in 2011 for a residency at the contemporary art space Alice Yard, she created nine decorated coffins for a performance work that required audience members to carry the finished pieces in a public procession. Most outrageously, she acquired a used car and redecorated it in bling style, completely covered in fabric and glitter. Perched on a similarly bedizened platform and blaring music from its speakers, it was commissioned for Young Talent V, a groundbreaking 2010 exhibition at the National Gallery in Kingston, introducing a cohort of emerging artists. Young Talent V turned out to be the most popular show in the gallery’s history, and Patterson’s work was the standout centerpiece.

“Primarily, Ebony enjoys herself,” says the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, who has curated her work in several shows. “Most importantly, she enjoyes making things, to the point of obsession. She is an instigator of collaborative actions. Before you know it, you are a stakeholder in giving form to her vision — but is it really hers exclusively? These materials, the characterisations and their gestures from popular culture, are close to us all.”

Tall, with an imposing bearing and outsize personality, Patterson stands literally head and shoulders above many of her peers. She has a mischievous sense of fun, a cacophonous laugh, and in the right time and place is more than willing to demonstrate the latest acrobatic dancehall moves. Physically, she’s more than a match for her spectacular artworks. But Patterson is also far more intensely driven than most of her contemporaries, and utterly savvy about the realities of the art world — not only in Jamaica, but internationally.

Since 2007, Patterson has taught in the art department at the University of Kentucky in Lexington — a small, quiet city, with few distractions and even fewer connections to the Caribbean. “Kentucky is where I work; Jamaica is home,” she insists, and she returns at every opportunity. Her father Oscar died recently, not long after seeing Young Talent V and recognising his daughter’s star quality. When she’s in Kingston, Patterson lives with her mother Thelma — “my number one supporter” — even if she sometimes asks when her daughter will take up painting again.

As Patterson’s profile rises, her work increasingly requires her to travel. In the past few months, she has been to Bermuda, where the National Gallery hosted a solo show of her work; to Copenhagen, for a conference of artists and curators; to New York, where she gave a talk at the Studio Museum in Harlem; and to Toronto, to install a new piece commissioned for an exhibition commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Jamaica’s Independence. But between all these appearances — and while keeping up with her teaching load in Lexington, and fielding queries from curators on her scent — Patterson was hard at work on a project based in Kingston.

In 2011, Patterson won the Rex Nettleford Fellowship in Cultural Studies, funded by the Rhodes Trust in memory of Jamaica’s late cultural icon. Her project was called Cheap + Clean, and its aim was to take her interest in dancehall’s gender ideologies in a new direction, by collaborating with a group of youngsters from the same “volatile communities” that bedevil contemporary Jamaica. Working with the artist, the fourteen young men designed their own bling ensembles, to represent the selves they wished to display to the world.

It was a chance to talk about their hopes and worries, about impending manhood; and a chance for these young men to imagine the ideal selves they wanted to become. At Cheap + Clean’s finale, they donned their new bespoke outfits and posed for a group portrait. The final photograph isn’t just a record of Patterson’s exchanges with her young collaborators: it is a projection of their aspirations and individuality. It takes its subjects seriously, just as Patterson’s wider practice takes dancehall culture seriously — not merely as entertainment or anthropological fodder, but as a social and political force that Jamaica has no choice but to reckon with.

“Ebony is obviously a leader, if not the leader in contemporary Jamaican art,” says Veerle Poupeye. “Her presence has energised the local art scene. And with its critical but sympathetic focus on contemporary popular culture, her work also directly addresses past criticisms that contemporary art in Jamaica is elitist, out of touch, socially irrelevant.” But Patterson doesn’t pause to bask in this kind of praise. Her focus is squarely on future work. Asked about her next major goal, she matter-of-factly says she wants to show at the Venice Biennial, the bluest of the contemporary art world’s blue-chip events. It’s a bold ambition, but the dancehall scene is nothing if not boldfaced. Her career thus far suggests Patterson knows the right moves — and when the spotlight comes her way, she won’t hesitate to show them off.
 

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