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Waltz with the Dead at a Jamaican Dancehall-Themed Exhibition

The fashionably flamboyant works of Ebony G. Patterson rethink the value of bling.

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez Opening on November 9, 2015. Photo by Jenna Bascom © Museum of Arts and Design.

With colorful rhinestones, glitter, and sequins, Ebony G. Patterson’s large-size tableau Dread Treez seduces. On view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Patterson's creations are uncomfortably gaudy scenes made out of bling. For the Jamaican artist, it points to a Dancehall music culture that is often celebrated internationally without the mention of the violence that affects the communities making the music and creating the culture.

Patterson tells The Creators Project, “I always find it interesting that the people who give us the most visibility are the people who are made to feel the most invisible socially,” says Patterson, who works between Jamaica and Kentucky where she teaches painting at the University of Kentucky.

Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez Opening on November 9, 2015. Photo by Jenna Bascom © Museum of Arts and Design.

One example of this is the fashionably flamboyant Swag Swag Krew made of 10 large-scale mannequins embellished with colorful rhinestones embroidered into their clothing and adorned with additional costume jewelry around their necks.

Five intricate woven tapestries—The Passing (Dead Dead), Where We Found Them, Wild Rosez, Roots and Shrubz, Wilted Rosez—feature imagery of  male members and material objects representative of the dancehall community. The works act as a kind of gravesite shrine, memorializing those killed with the acoutrements that brought them meaning—and sometimes caused their deaths. The work raises questions about the price of materiality and masculinity. 

Installation View of … buried again to carry on growing… A POV by Ebony G. Patterson at the Museum of Arts and Design. 

In the third part of the exhibition, MAD invited Patterson to continue the motif of death in their Tiffany & Co. Foundation Jewelry Gallery for a series that allows artists to utilize the museum’s permanent collection of jewels. By lacing poisonous plants in-between rarefied and decorative jewelry—diamond and gold necklaces, opal earrings, and plastic Optik Art Brooches—Patterson further explores the connections between poverty and visibility. The jewelry is positioned in some cases between fake limbs, suggesting that underneath the dirt are bodies that once laid claim to it.

Installation View of … buried again to carry on growing …A POV by Ebony G. Patterson at the Museum of Arts and Design. Photo: Butcher Walsh © Museum of Arts and Design

“I feel when it comes to work that is associated with craft it becomes about the aesthetics and not about the conceptual discussions,” explains the Patterson. She titles this section of the exhibition, …buried again to carry on growing… after Jamaican poet Olive Senior’s poem, "Brief Lives." For the artist, the garden installation alludes to the names of the inner-city Jamaican neighborhoods that often have the word “garden” in them but are, in fact, far from the poetic ideals. The irony successfully pushes her interrogation of the morbid material culture associated with poor communities.  

Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez Opening on November 9, 2015. Photo by Jenna Bascom © Museum of Arts and Design.

“The use of beauty is just an attempt to trap the viewer,” says Patterson. “I want the viewer to think about how they feel if it was an image of someone who was their own loved one—it would be unsettling. I am simply asking people to ask greater questions about the ways they engage people who come from these underserved spaces.”

Ebony G. Patterson’s Dead Treez continues through April 3 at the Museum of Arts and Design. For more information, click here.

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