I am struggling to photograph a tapestry. It’s patterned and glittered all over — pink sparkles clashing with red flowers that rub up against three-dimensional objects like toy trucks. My camera and eye don’t know where to focus. The gallery is dark, dramatically lit, but the tapestry is a haze of sparkles and shimmers. I make out a zigzag, a line of fringe cutting its way through the clamor. I train my lens upon it and wait for the image to resolve. As it does, I realize I’m looking at not just a line but a leg. The fringe belongs to a pair of geometric patterned pants. I trace them up to where they meet a gold torso, but the body stops there.
“In order to force one’s way out of invisibility one has to create a reason to be seen,” says Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson.
I walk around the tapestry, which rests on the floor, in an attempt to see its contents more clearly. There are two toy guns covered in floral prints; flowers everywhere, embedded in glitter and sitting atop the surface in silk; a miniature lace skirt; two toy trucks. There is another body, much smaller than the first, represented by a camouflage outfit. This one, like the first, is a body only by virtue of its clothing: shirt, pants, shoes. There is no head to speak of, no arms or flesh.
“There is a challenge being made about seeing and looking. The seeing is what happens on social media, but the looking is what I’m asking you to do,” says Patterson.
What is the relationship between these two sets of clothing without bodies? Am I looking at a mother and her son — or the remains of them? Where were they going? Were the guns only toys? How did the mother’s right shoe — a dazzling boot, a glittering, embroidered articulation of turquoise and white set atop a thick black heel — end up so far from her leg? Whose shoe is the other one — a three-dimensional red and black slipper — that sits near it?
Where are the bodies?
“Gardening in the Tropics, you never know
what you’ll turn up. Quite often, bones,” writes Jamaican poet Olive Senior.
In the other tapestries, it’s the same story. I go looking for bodies but all I find are clothes. Brilliant, beautiful ones, but the bodies they’re meant to hold have vanished. Decomposed, maybe. Broken back down into the thickets of flowers and jewels, objects and ornament that envelop them. I train my eyes to trace the outlines of the blinged-out outfits. I recondition them so that they can see. I don’t see the bodies, but I know they are here.
* * *
On the other side of the space, there are 10 bodies, all made of plastic and covered in floral and arabesque patterns — dots and stripes, plants and curlicues enveloping both their outfits and every inch of their fake skin.
“I refer to it as ‘skin blinging,’ because it also creates a moment of illumination. This idea of erasing oneself into presence. Erasing one’s local pigmentation as a way of creating visibility, and skin becomes an extension of the garment,” says Patterson.
There’s a mind-boggling amount of pattern here, but the bodies aren’t lost amid it — they’re in control. Pattern as tool, as expression, as bid for attention. Pattern as a way to make us see what we otherwise might not bother to. Patterns that individually would wallpaper rooms in ideals of femininity and beauty, transposed onto male bodies that the dominant culture labels worthless.
One of the men bears Audubon-style illustrations on his skin. He wears a vest and pants printed with big, graphic images of leaves, plus several beaded bracelets, multiple gold and gem-encrusted chains, thick plastic-frame glasses, and something like a goth tutu around his neck. He holds a baby in his lap, whose own skin is covered with flowers. Is this tacky? Who’s to say? Why not call it instead a glorious, unrestrained clash of styles — and with them, values?
The men of the “Swag Swag Krew” wear their bodies like clothing. They pose for photographs with bottles of alcohol and flowers at their feet. They roll up to the museum in formation, announcing their arrival. They tell us that they are here, and they demand that we see.
* * *
“This is a body … ”
“Yeah. That’s a severed hand.”
—overheard in Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibitions at the MAD
In the glass cases behind the black curtain, the bodies are broken: a torso here, a leg there, a hand hiding amid the foliage. In these cases, we are unearthing bodies — exhuming them from Olive Senior’s garden, picking them out from among the poisonous plants, connecting them to the pieces of priceless jewelry scattered nearby. Is that a pile of severed limbs near the multifinger ring by Myra Mimlitsch-Gray? How many diamonds stud the face of that gold watch on the wrist of the hand without a body? Brooches and necklaces accent the nature-inspired patterns that stand in for body parts, which blend with their surroundings in a stunning camouflage of violence.
“I’m not sure if I would say it’s dark … these are realities. It’s simply dark because we choose not to acknowledge it,” says Patterson. “I’m choosing to turn the light on.”
Here I am again, struggling to see the bodies — glimpsing their traces, piecing their limbs together in my mind and imagining them onto orphan torsos. But the parts themselves appear strangely at home here, lurking amid the anthuriums and foxgloves like animals in the brush. These glowing glass cases achieve a bright, blazing unity of natural and unnatural, laced with an exquisite poison. Death has come, and with it, the possibility of new life.
Ebony G. Patterson’s Dead Treez and …buried again to carry on growing… continue at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 3. She also has an exhibition on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) through June 26.