Ebony G. Patterson: to kiss a flower goodbye
On ViewHales Gallery
May 5 – June 18, 2022
In her second solo exhibition at Hales Gallery, …to kiss a flower goodbye…, Ebony G. Patterson continues to explore the garden as a multilayered metaphor for the colonial histories embedded in the Caribbean landscape. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Patterson has developed a distinct aesthetic marked by the vibrancy and lushness often associated with her country of birth. Yet for the artist, appropriating these characteristics serves to highlight the misguided notions we tend to attach to beauty, disregarding what might be lurking underneath: a bed of flowers does not erase the mass grave below, and covering up an open wound with glitter can only hide the damage, not heal it. As Patterson explained to the New York Times last year: “The garden … is a larger metaphor for postcolonial states: All this beauty conceals trauma and violence.”1
Walking into the gallery, the viewer is immersed in a darkened room, described in the press release as a “night garden.” To this end, the walls are covered with purple-tinted, custom-designed wallpaper, repeating an image of a cluster of plants seemingly shot at night. Installed on the wallpaper are a series of five new tapestries and collages, which Patterson creates through a complex multi-step process. First shooting and editing photographs that form the foundation of the works, Patterson then cuts the images up and collages them back together into intricate compositions that extend into three-dimensional space. To produce the tapestries, Patterson sends the images to a commercial weaver. Then, the artist adorns her creations with an array of accessories such as beads, feathers, and glitter. As Amber Officer-Narvasa wrote in her review (published in these pages) of Patterson’s last show at Hales: “Patterson draws on the ornate visual language of Black femme self-adornment and dollar store ritual.” The artist shares this aesthetic sensibility with her contemporary Pamela Council, and while their practices take very different directions, both approach—and expose—adversity through adornment.
The multimedia collages are placed in glass cases, while the tapestries occupy the same space as the viewer, even extending to the floor. Reminiscent of an enlarged sew-on patch that could adorn the back of a jean jacket, the tapestries offer an abundance of textures and embellishments, so attractive that it takes some effort to discern the imagery embedded within. ...in the lament...there is a nest...a bursting a...nourishing (2021–22) reveals two figures at the center, one clasping the other by the arm in a gesture that could be both affectionate and aggressive. A large snake swirls through the lower half of the composition, peeking its head out at the very bottom. A recurring motif in Patterson’s work, the snake could allude to either the serpent’s biblical role as tempter and corrupter, or to its larger association with fertility and rebirth. A funerary ribbon, placed a few inches to the right of the tapestry— separate but connected—reads: “my love our love.” Adding an elegiac quality to the work, the ribbon confirms Patterson’s ongoing interest in the process and labor of mourning, particularly for Black women.
Not only the snake, but the rich symbolism associated with animals in general plays an important role in Patterson’s practice. Sculptural reproductions of various creatures, rendered life-size, particularly stand out in this exhibition—many of them rest atop pillowy surfaces protruding from the tapestries, like deities guarding their paradise. An ominous raven watches over the earlier mentioned tapestry, while a reptile lurks in the top left, and a pig’s head is positioned in the lower center like an offering. A chameleon and vulture occupy …in the swallowing…she carries the whole…the hole (2021–22), evoking transformation and death.
Two snakes are positioned directly atop the glass cases housing of ...pink...red...striped...carnations... (2021–22). This diptych of mixed-media paper collages centers two Black (seemingly) female bodies, surrounded by flora and fauna. At the edges, butterflies mingle with cockroaches in a rather disturbing tableau that brings beauty and debasement into close contact. Yet it also makes the viewer question why we attach such positive associations to the butterfly, while we rush to squash the cockroach—and how much of our reaction is connected to appearance alone. This work, too, incorporates text, infusing the collage with poetry. Centered on the lower half of the left collage is the word “forever” rendered in 3D font, while the right collage reads “in waiting.” Taken together, the poignant phrase “forever in waiting” recalls Tavia Nyong’o’s suggestion that for Black people, there is something particularly familiar about the phenomenon of waiting. Quoting Nyong’o in his iconic volume of queer theory Cruising Utopia, the late José Esteban Muñoz argues that waiting marks the experience of outcasts, tapping into a way of being that is out of sync with the structure of straight, linear time, and thereby with dominant society as well.1 It is this kind of existence that Patterson’s work urges the viewer to understand, showing us a process of collective mourning in cultural and artistic landscapes forever haunted by our violent histories, the ruins of the past still visible despite efforts to build a better future atop them.
Nyong’o quoted in Jose Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia, p. 182.