Ebony Patterson has a lot to say about her homeland, Jamaica of the 1990s. Now a resident of Kentucky where she teaches at the University of Kentucky, she uses art to say it. Her first solo show, Dead Treez, originally designed for the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis, has just opened in New York City to let her say her piece to the wide world.
In 2012, one painting by Patterson was part of a collective exhibition called “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World.” That piece, a painting of an androgynous bust with dark skin, a white face, and flamboyant sunglasses, was a single-word commentary on the extravagant fashion world of Jamaican dancehall culture. Dead Treez is a whole soliloquy on the subject.
Visitors are greeted to the installation by a tableau of ten male mannequins in richly patterned fancy dress. At first glance, nothing about them is particularly menacing. But under their feet is the show’s main attraction, a set of immense tapestries laid like carpets on the floor. Densely sewn over with objects, the tapestries invite the viewer to spend time puzzling them out. Put into them are guns, flowers, schoolbooks, shoes. And hidden in this density of detail are life-sized photos, pulled straight from the newspapers, of Jamaican murder victims, some of them directly victims of the gang-style violence that exists like a weft beneath the bright glamour of dancehall culture.
The theme of beauty over horror extends through the smaller adjoining exhibit that Ms. Patterson has assembled from the museum’s permanent collection. To add to her statement, she collected a number of bizarre examples of contemporary jewelry; ornamental brass knuckles, necklace made of gun parts, a belt made of bullets. Displayed in broad bowls of fake carnivorous plants, they, like the tapestries, give off a sense of half-concealed menace.