By: Ade Omotosho
In their incredible poem “summer, somewhere,” Danez Smith imagines a kind of sylvan afterlife where once dead black boys and men are revived and bond as brothers of a lethal fate, set apart from the violence that ravaged their previous lives. In …while the dew is still on the roses…, an immersive installation and exhibition on view at PAMM surveying ten years of Ebony G. Patterson’s work in painting, sculpture, and video, Patterson cultivates a world not unlike the one Smith conjures. Hers is a world of sparkling melancholy: dozens of glinting black shoes dangle from the ceiling like some cheerless chandelier; flowers bloom in vivid red and orange and yellow and white, glass hands and feet among them.
Here, beauty mingles with death, shrouding its shivering indifference, encrusting it. The effect is solacing. The installation’s tone is elegiac yet forceful: Patterson wants us to see, to witness, and the light of her work irradiates the brutal injustices that perversely haunt the lives of black people. After the opening of her exhibition last fall, I spoke with Patterson about violence, death, memorial, and the seduction of beauty.
Omotosho: In February, I sat in an audience for Carrie Mae Weems’s performance work Past Tense. Early on, Weems intoned something along the lines of “let us bury our dead,” referring to the lives of black men, women, and children that we have lost to various instances of violence. That line has stayed with me and I think of it often when I consider this project. Can you talk about the ways in which this installation serves, in part, as a kind of memorial, a way to honor the lives of black people who have died so tragically?
Patterson: While it’s definitely engaged in a language around memorialization, the thing that has always been really interesting to me is the fact that people consider ways to memorialize themselves. They are not waiting for other people to do it, there’s a kind of actualization that happens by the person that is ushered or instigated by the person.
I remember when I was making the work for Invisible Presence—a coffin-based work—I came across an interview where this woman said that she was going to a funeral parlor in Kingston to pay down a coffin that she wanted. Just the idea that she understands that this is something that is coming—and it’s not like she was sick or anything—but she was deciding on the entire staging of her exit. And even having conversations with my mother, for example, who has talked about the kind of funeral she wants, about the kind of hymns that she wants sung. This idea of coordinating all of that—one’s own memorial as a way of holding onto power when you’re no longer energetically present, when you’ve left your body, to me, is interesting. And the possibility of that happening in public space, where one calls a community to come to. That’s an entirely different thing than a community showing up to. And I think that kind of actualization by people who are only allowed to be actualized in certain ways is really empowering.
There’s agency in deciding how they are going to leave this world.
Right, and there’s a kind of counter to the same society that has discredited them. I remember a line from the interview: “They may not have noticed me, but they damn sure will see me before I leave.” And I thought, what a powerful way to declare your presence? Even in death this person understands that in society she may have had very little value, but she acknowledges her value.
There are numerous religious references in the installation: the funerary hymnal from which the exhibition takes its title; the invocation of the Four Horsemen enshrined in Christian eschatology; the chapel-like design of the gallery that houses ...three kings weep….What inspired the religious or spiritual dimensions of the exhibition?
It was inspired by thinking art historically about the kinds of depictions that often happen with biblical stories—the use of the golden halo, usually just a tinge of bling on the surface, and the idea that the halo communicates light, somebody who is enlightened, who is touched. It was also driven by particular questions: What does enlightenment mean? What does enlightenment mean in a physical way? How can that manifest itself onto people who are not necessarily seen in those terms?
Also, how do people engage in the idea of enlightening themselves? There’s an earlier conversation that I remember having with Krista Thompson about video light and the way it creates a moment of visibility, a moment of shine. There’s the light that comes from another source, but you too are reflecting light because of the clothing that you’re wearing or the way that you’ve chosen to adorn yourself. By creating a lot of light on oneself, one also captures light and then reflects it back out into the world through the video as a kind of portal that leads elsewhere.
I’ve been pulling from art historical points of reference, and in our day-to-day there are ways that these things have bled into our popular visual vernacular. For example, when one looks at a mugshot, there is a kind of deifying that happens within that. The tipping of the head is always interesting to me. There’s a kind of prowess in that moment that is both confrontational and a kind of claim, a claim of assertion.
Structurally, by using all these religious references, I’m interested in the elevation that happens with bodies that are not allowed to have a particular place or elevation, that are not allowed to have a particular kind of power because of where they are on the hierarchical social ladder.
Many of the figures depicted in the works are sourced from lurid images of their deaths that circulate on social media. The circulation of these images, especially within the last few years of increased video documentation of police brutality and killings, has been contentious and roused conversations about violence and lack of dignity afforded black people. Why did you choose to recuperate these bodies from these images and lavishly adorn them in your works?
My parents, when they were growing up, were working-class people, and in contrast to their siblings, had done pretty well for themselves. I did grow up in a kind of middle-class existence in Jamaica, but I was always continually made aware that this was a privileged space. I was very aware of my aunts and uncles who have lived in working-class communities, especially having gone to school in one—my first high school. I think that I could do lots of things, but I have to do the thing that feels most earnest to me. This does.
What is the significance to you of “bearing witness?” Why the twin alternative spellings of “bear” within the titles of the works from the series for those who bear/bare witness?
To bear witness requires empathy and giving space. You’re recognizing that this is about somebody else—it’s not about me. The act of bearing witness can be a very vulnerable thing, to surrender to a moment that may seem volatile. And particularly with that body of work (for those who bear/bare witness), I was really interested in the images that I was looking at—loved ones who are photographed at sites of violence, often working-class people, people of color—and thinking about the photograph as a tool that could communicate power (I’m deciding how I want to be seen in the world and then I’m going out). But photographing someone in one of their most vulnerable moments is also an act of violence by taking that person’s photograph and sending it out into the world where they then have no control over how they’re seen. Susan Sontag wrote about this (On Photography / Regarding the Pain of Others). So bare in terms of vulnerability, but also bear, as in the act of bearing, were two things that I wanted the viewer to think about and grapple with—the friction between those two words.
What kind of demand on empathy does this installation elicit from viewers?
I’m definitely trying to tug at the viewer and that’s why …three kings weep... is the last work. If, walking through the space, it didn’t quite hit you, it’ll hit you in the last moment, and that moment may help to shift the way you read the work when you walk back out, looking again. There may be something more that may shift the way you saw things before. And especially with …three kings weep…, there’s a different kind of physical engagement that happens in the space that is very strategic. I wanted to slow the viewer down, totally down. I want them to be very aware of, not just what they’re looking at, but of the way their own body feels within the space, the weight of their own body, the sound of their own body in relation to everything they’re looking at. There is a quietness and of course a reverence that’s expected because you’re sitting essentially at the feet of these three figures. Three figures whom you don’t know; they could be anyone, but at the same time they’re positioned in such a way that they aren’t just anyone.
The environment of the installation is so immersive. It reminds me of a poem by Danez Smith titled “summer, somewhere.” In the poem, Smith imagines a kind of forest afterlife for young black men and boys who have been killed. There’s this line: “paradise is a world where everything / is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” How did you envision creating an immersive space of this scale for the exhibition?
The idea is something that I’ve been turning over since the show I did at Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). Interestingly, yesterday, when we opened, was three years to the day that show opened. With the show at MAD, the work I made in the vitrines of the jewelry gallery was essentially a garden gone awry.
They had invited me to use their collection, and I included bodies within the work, and the objects in the collection served as clues. We’d stumble upon a body that was shrouded in vegetation and the vegetation was colored by poisonous plants. But rather than create a window onto an environment, I attempted to create a space where the viewer had to negotiate thinking about the garden as a grave and walk physically through the grave. I was also interested in the potential of using a lot of the contextual ideas within the work over the years to broaden and stretch and shift the way earlier works are seen in relation to newer works in this exhibition. So, it’s part survey, part new work, all immersive installation. These thirteen works have varied ideas and languages and are all strung together in a bigger language that kind of serves as both metaphor and site, part imagined, but quite tangible in terms of physical space.
When you’re making the tapestries, do you begin with a very clear idea of how everything will look, or is it when you’re working with the materials that it begins to reveal itself?
It’s when I’m beginning to work. It really is an intuitive process. There was a time when, especially with the works on paper, I’d do studies to figure out compositionally what was going to make the most sense, and then what compositions I wanted to enlarge, but even those never looked like the end product. In the installation, if you look at the mockups that I’ve done for, say, the floating graves, they were so different from what they are now. It’s one thing to see a mockup, and another to see the work in real life. I’m open enough to respond to the work, and I’m continually responding, so it’s very intuitive in that way.
There’s a great deal happening in the installation in terms of looking, seeing, and bearing witness. The eye is constantly challenged with the intricate embroidery, patterns, layering, and the excess of detail. Why mix beauty with death and violence? How does beauty serve as a strategy to provoke other questions and concerns?
Beauty, for me, is a tool; a tool of seduction, a trap. I kind of think about it in relation to a bee: the bee is attracted to a flower because of how bright it is and then it decides to dwell if the nectar is sweet enough. If not, it seeks out another flower.
I’m thinking about all of these seductive qualities materially as a way to hold the viewer in a kind of trap. Because it’s so alluring, there’s so much muchness, it almost becomes a kind of fly-trap, where you get sucked in a little further, and then you have to contend with the violence.
From a sociopolitical perspective, I’m interested in how working-class people use tools of beauty as a way of claiming presence for themselves. The idea of capturing beauty on the body or in one’s space or in one’s home—that’s something that we all pursue. It’s something that I think we’re all involved in, in one way or another. But of course, each of our ideas about what beauty is varies.
I’m interested in people who are not allowed to be seen as beautiful—how they activate beauty and how that becomes a tool of power. I remember one year I read a blog post by this woman who talked about her mother and an older neighbor who had lived next door to them when she was a kid. The older woman was trying to go down to the social security office to get her benefits, and somehow she was never taken seriously by the attendants. They were always stringing her along. Her mother decides to go to the social security office with this older woman to help and she was shocked that her mother was getting dressed in her best clothes and putting on pearls to go down. “Why are you dressing up? We’re only going to the social security office,” and the mother replied, “I dress up so they can take us seriously.” Essentially, she recognizes that her social status is going to be a point of contention, and she understands too that if she presents herself in a particular way, she understands the power of optics and how that translates in terms of the power that she has. It’s such a powerful thing to understand and then to teach to this young black girl who is also going to have to negotiate her own points of power and optics later on in her life when society tells her what she can or cannot be.
About Notes on the Collection
“Notes on the Collection,” a blog series by Pérez Art Museum Miami’s (PAMM) first Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow Ade Omotosho, where he’ll focus on artworks on view from the exhibitions and from the museum’s permanent collection. Omotosho will share his notes on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with various artworks that he hopes might provide a generative way to think about PAMM’s diverse collection.
About Ade Omotosho
Ade Omotosho is the inaugural Ford Foundation Curatorial Fellow at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). Prior to PAMM, he was the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow in the photography department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His research focuses on international modern and contemporary art with a particular interest in the practices of artists of the African diaspora. He received his Bachelor of Arts in art history from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2017.