BU Today

Arts & Entertainment

All That Glitters Is Not Gold at 808 Gallery

Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez explores class, gender, race

mannequins with colorful clothing and accessories with flowers hanging from the ceiling

Swag, Swag Krew from the Out and Bound series, 2011–2014, cotton, velvet, lace, plastic, and mixed media. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo by Alexandra Wimley (COM’17)

Warning: you may want to don a pair of sunglasses before entering the current show at the 808 Gallery. There is so much glitter, opulent color, and intricately woven jacquard tapestry on view in Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez that it’s hard at first to see what the exhibition is all about.

But seeing is exactly what Patterson wants us to do. Drawing on the dance hall culture of her native Jamaica, where men frequently don bold, often ostentatious clothing and jewelry, the artist is exploring the relationship of so-called “bling culture” to society’s constructs of masculinity. She has said that “ideas about masculinity are…shifting into a kind of faux feminine.” Using mixed media, she is at once presenting—and deconstructing—our notions of masculinity.

In one of the most dazzling installations, Swag, Swag Krew, a group of 10 male mannequins of various ages are atop a platform under an enormous pink striped parasol. Their clothing is studded with rhinestones. Pants, shirts, vests are a riot of colors, textures, and patterns—clothing many might consider feminine. The bodies, arms, hands, faces, are camouflaged with textiles, the figures assuming postures often associated with machismo. But Patterson isn’t just exploring gender here. These are men who are using clothes as a way to demand attention. The artist has said that dance halls in Jamaica, predominantly patriarchal, are a place where men who are often rendered invisible and disenfranchised by larger society gather and dress so as to be noticed. With such a flamboyant style of dress, these men are seeking the attention so often denied them in broader society.

By mounting the mannequins on a large platform above the viewer’s eyeline, Patterson forces us to gaze up, as if in respect and admiration. Here, and elsewhere in the exhibition, clothing is used, as the accompanying text notes, both to “define and exemplify questions of invisibility.” By covering all of the bodies (including faces) with fabric, plastic, and mixed media, she is also making reference to the popularity of tattooing and skin lightening—what she sees as another way for people to draw attention to themselves, insisting that they be noticed.

“The history of colorism in many ways impacts the reasons people lighten,” Patterson said in a 2015 Huffington Post interview. “There is a sense of de-value in people being darker…erasing one’s local pigmentation is a way of creating visibility, and skin becomes an extension of the garment.”

Patterson is a rising star in the contemporary art world. Her work is currently on view in this year’s São Paulo Biennial and two of her paintings have been seen on the hit Fox TV drama Empire (featured in the character Jamal Lyon’s penthouse apartment). And last year, she had two solo museum shows in New York, including Dead Treez, which opened at the Museum of Arts and Design after first being mounted at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisc.

colorful bicycle laying on side

Ebony G. Patterson’s tapestry The Passing (Dead Daadi), 2010–2013, cotton, glitter, and metal. Courtesy of Hirshberg Collection, LA. Photo by Olivia Nadel (COM’17)

In addition to the sculptural installation, the exhibition includes a series of large-scale tapestries throughout the gallery, most placed on the floor. At first glance, all the viewer sees are dizzying arrangements of fabric patterns, crocheted roses, and ephemera, like a child’s bike, a gold teacup and saucer from a toy tea set, adult shoes. But look closer, and in most of the tapestries, you can make out the outline of a body of a child or an adult.

Patterson is using the same flamboyant aspects of dance hall dress to focus on people of color who have met a violent death. Influenced by images of lifeless bodies of black men and women widely available on various social media platforms, she has created these abstract images of the dead to pull viewers in and make them witnesses to the often-ignored brutality experienced by those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

In one of the most disquieting tapestries, Wilted Roses (2014), a figure dressed in clothes reminiscent of a matador emerges from the sequins and fabric, limbs akimbo, feet contorted. The image brings to mind photos of brutal crime scenes where gunshot victims lie splayed on the sidewalk. The tapestries showing children’s bodies are even more heartbreaking: toy cars, children’s watches, and toy guns covered in fabric, even a child’s black-and-white composition book lying face down, are reminders of the huge number of young lives lost to violence each year. This is work that deliberately pulls you in. With the tapestries being laid flat, the viewer must peer down at them, as if looking into a grave.

colorful tapestry made of cotton, glitter, plastic, glass, and black crocheted roses and mixed media.

Patterson’s tapestries, including Wilted Rosez, 2014, cotton, metal, glitter, plastic, glass, black crocheted roses, and mixed media, commemorate the lives of people of color who died violently and whose images surfaced on social media platforms. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Commissioned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Photo by Alexandra Wimley (COM’17)

“With this new work, I started thinking a lot about visibility and the internet in terms of the bee-and-flower syndrome,” Patterson says. “The bee is attracted to the flower because of its coloring, because of its beauty, and it isn’t until he gets in that he discovers if the flower has the nectar he wants. So you are attracted to the work because of its shininess, because of its prettiness, but it’s not until you get into the work that you start to realize that there’s something more.”

“The ideas that are circulating in Ebony’s work are very poignant and complex,” says Lynne Cooney (GRS’10,’16), artistic director of the Boston University Art Galleries. “The fact that these tapestries are layered with glitter and shiny elements kind of belies the seriousness of the content of her work, and I think that’s what she’s really interested in.

“Part of our overall mission is to bring in cutting-edge artists and artworks and to allow for a diversity of voices to be presented in the gallery spaces,” says Cooney, “and this year, we’re intensifying all of those ideas and trying to work with artists who are really thinking about our current moment and what it means.”

Ebony G. Patterson: Dead Treez is on view at the 808 Gallery, 808 Commonwealth Ave., through December 4. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Thursday, noon to 8 p.m., closed Monday. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

+ Comments
john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)