Ebony G. Patterson: Botanicals of social justice

The following interview was originally published in Antennae Journal, Issue 52, Autumn 2020. Read the full interview here.

Ebony G. Patterson is a painter and mixed media artist originally born in Jamaica and currently based in Chicago and Kingston, Jamaica. Patterson creates large-scale, “maximalist” installations that often include wallpaper, tapestries, layered fabrics, additional brocading, and dollar store elements that blend beauty, foliage, and concealed figures to meditate on the relationship between violence and materialism. An expert at disturbing expectations of surface, she creates entire environments that implicate audiences in our quest for aesthetic pleasure in a post-colonial world. In the following interview, we focus primarily on Patterson’s use of plants and how they participate and amplify some of these themes. Patterson has had solo exhibitions at many US institutions, including Pérez Art Museum Miami, Baltimore Museum of Art, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art, SCAD Museum of Art, GA, and the Museum of Arts and Design.

Carline Picard: What compels you to use plants so regularly in your work?

Ebony G. Patterson: Using plants is a formal way of playing with the figure’s position between foreground and background. I also think about the way people use dress as a point of embellishment. So, putting a body that is already highly patterned in highly patterned clothing, placing that body on a surface that’s also highly patterned creates a way of simultaneously dealing with space and dealing with that person’s form.

CP: Do you use “foliage” and “figure” synonymously in your work?

EGP: I started thinking about the body as it relates to the garden it sits in. And I’m not talking about a utilitarian garden. I’m talking about a garden with “Victorian sensibilities”: it’s all about its showy-ness; the clothing that sits on these bodies is also about showy-ness. An important moment occurred when I recognized I could play with the viewer’s attempts to distinguish patterns and the environment, which happened when I started addressing the work in narrative terms.

CP: How did you shift from working on the floor to the wall? I’m asking partly because there’s something so intuitive in a way, about plants growing from the ground, maybe also this idea that a dead body is usually discovered on the ground too…

EGP: I went from works on paper to the tapestries on the floor. And I was thinking about the viewer’s relationship to these dead bodies and kind of recontextualizing what that meant. At the Museum of Art and Design in New York (MAD), I had the opportunity to do a project in their vitrines. That was the first time I actually worked with plants as sculptural elements and then thinking physically about what that means, like building out that environment instead of an illusion of that environment.

CP: How did that project change the way you were thinking?

EGP: In 2016, Shannon Stratton had just assumed her role as MAD’s curator; she saw my show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (2015). Karen Patterson curated that iteration of Dead Treez, and it was the first time I had shown these floor-based works. We showed two other works—a kind of pseudo-memorialization of my father’s passing, The Passing (Dead Daddi) (2011-13). The other one comprised about fourteen mannequins all clad up, Swag Swag Krew (from the Out and Bad Series) (2011-2014).

CP: You also used floral wallpaper in the Swag Swag Krew installation, and weren’t there also flowers hanging from the ceiling? I was reading about the show recently. It felt like you were presenting these highly stylized mannequin male figures wearing watches and very elaborate, lush fabrics, patterns, hats—all of it, but the figures themselves remain anonymous somehow. Almost like memorializing these desirable objects.

EGP: The Swag Swag Krew was in the show because that was the first time I started to remove the skin, you know, like the color of skin or the flesh. The earliest iteration of that work only had five figures, and it was when I had a show at the National Gallery of Bermuda (2012). In the show Dead Treez at the Kholer, before it had traveled to MAD, I had this larger version of Swag Swag Krew as well as five other tapestries, and in all of those works, the presence of flesh was totally absent; you just had the clothing. Shannon invited the Kholer to bring the show to MAD. She thought it would be an interesting way of pushing the conversation around craft at the MAD. At the time, they also had this project going with artists to curate a selection of objects in their Tiffany Gallery vitrines, and so that’s how the vitrine installations came about.

CP: It almost feels like you enter this incredibly serene but hyper-colored space of glass framed by white vitrines. The installation feels eerie. You can’t tell if you are inside a fishbowl looking out through plants or whether you outside, surrounded by these glass plastic gardens. It also has a commercial feel to it. Like the vitrines could almost be in a department store…

EGP: I wanted to see what would it be like to take what was happening in the floor-based tapestries and have a tableau within the vitrine? Every object that I had chosen from the MAD jewelry collection was a clue about a ‘person’. There was a person or a body that was resting within this overgrowth.