Inside Ebony G. Patterson’s Massive, Lush Garden Built to Memorialize the Dead

Alina Cohen
Dec 3, 2018 9:37PM

Ebony G. Patterson, ...a wailing black horse...for those who bear/bare witness (detail), 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

In her native Jamaica, artist Ebony G. Patterson told me, many communities’ names include the word “garden.” For her, the word conveys an aspirational lifestyle—not everyone owns enough land to devote to flowers—but also invokes colonial nostalgia. Patterson mentioned London’s Kew Gardens, which dates back to the 18th century and the height of British imperialism. “Plants are collected from everywhere and brought into this massive system to exist together,” she said. “If we think about the post-colonial experience, it’s kind of similar.” The British transported human bodies, like exotic buds, to wherever they saw fit.

In biblical lore, a mere apple bite turns Eden from the site of eternal bliss into the venue for original sin. The garden, as a result, has become one of our richest symbols of fraught, tenuous beauty. In her glittering tapestries and lush, immersive installations, Patterson weaves ideas about loss and memory into tangles of vines, leaves, and flowers. In a tapestry entitled found among the reeds-Dead Treez . . . (2015), for example, a bed of knitted blue, red, and purple petals, embellished with costume jewelry, partially masks a pair of boots and two hats. The body is mysteriously absent, lending an eerie, haunting note to an otherwise exuberant artwork. Patterson has become a master of such simultaneously ghostly and spectacular, maximalist pieces.

Installation view of “Ebony G. Patterson...while the dew is still on the roses...” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo by Oriol Tarridas. Courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.


For her exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), on view through May 5, 2019, Patterson transports viewers to what she calls a “night garden.” She’s lined the walls with a moody, dark-purple-and-blue wallpaper consisting of repeating squares that multiply one photograph of a cluster of flowers. She’s hung her tapestries and drawings on top and included a floor piece: Crocheted and embroidered, with two pairs of actual shoes resting on top, it resembles an elevated, irregularly shaped rug. Bundles of ivy and red blossoms dangle from the ceiling, while bouquets spill from the walls and corners.

The galleries begin to resemble natural, generative spaces. Viewers can also walk through a series of life-sized, bulging arrangements of orange, yellow, and white carnations, studded with roses, all mounted on wooden platforms. Plantlife and art comfortably commingle with fashion adornments: Bracelets, necklaces, and earrings rest atop the floor piece, while a clear purse sits on one of the massive flower arrangements.

Patterson began using garden motifs in her work about five years ago. It all started with trees. “I was really interested in the saying: ‘If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?’” she recalled. She liked “the idea that the forest is able to both conceal and reveal.” It holds secrets and requires witnesses to acknowledge them. For her, this was a natural metaphor for the way that society can so easily ignore violence against black bodies.

The conceit easily led Patterson to a process for creating tapestries. She sources media images of mourning at sites where traumas have occurred (mostly murders incited by racism), then restages the scenarios with actors who wear clothing she’s had specially tailored. During day-long photoshoots, Patterson takes her own photographs. Later, she edits the images and sends them to commercial weavers, who send back knit versions of her pictures. “Then I sit with it,” she said. “I embellish it, I chop it up. It’s a very layered, meaty process.” A sense of depth and landscape remains, scattered with various body parts or pieces of clothing. Yet Patterson obscures and abstracts the original picture beyond easy recognition. Notably, she never uses photographs of the deceased themselves for her source material—recirculating such images doesn’t appeal to her. She’s more interested in considering how the living grieve.

Ebony G. Patterson, Untitled Species VIII (Ruff)..., 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Installation view of “Ebony G. Patterson...while the dew is still on the roses...” at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Photo by Oriol Tarridas. Courtesy of the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In the past, Patterson has been more overt about the tragedies she’s addressing in her artwork. In 2010, during the Tivoli Incursion, conflict between Jamaican authorities and a drug cartel killed at least 73 people. Yet the state never released an official list of the deceased. In response, Patterson created 72 embroidered bandannas, full of her trademark sparkles, each featuring a printed portrait (not of the victims, of course, because no one knows who they are). Patterson included a list of questions to accompany the work in a wall text: “Did they have a boyfriend or girlfriend?” “What did they like to eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner?” The queries humanize the dead, forcing the audience to think about them as individuals, not statistics.

Patterson has also peopled her installations with mannequins, simulating a group of bodies in the gallery space. In a notable 2015 presentation at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, a flower-patterned platform supported a sumptuously decorated group of figures. A 2016–17 installation entitled …PRESENCE… included a tableau of 23 embellished mannequins, situated in a mock-tropical setting with leafy wallpaper surrounding them. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Patterson entirely removed bodily references in a series of 50 heavily decorated, coffin-shaped sculptures, elevated above the ground, for an exhibition at Illinois State University earlier this year (the “absence” counterpart, perhaps, to the previous “presence” work).

Ebony G. Patterson, ... they stood in a time of unknowing...for those who bear/bare witness, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

It can be difficult, at first glance, to understand how an artist could make such heavy material bright and lively. Yet Patterson noted that a garden can also be a burial site—we’re often merging beauty and death, from placing flowers on a tombstone to digging graves in quiet, verdant locales.

If Patterson’s sparkling surfaces overwhelm the eye, she’s also apt to maximize the garden’s symbolic potential. While discussing all of its possible connotations, she told me how “the garden happens on the body.” For her, clothing is its own kind of garden: an embellishment that can convey status and personality. Fashion implies self-determination and even liberation—by choosing our clothing, we decide how we present ourselves to the world. Using mannequins, Patterson further connects her work to the industry. Somehow, she manages to merge such disparate ideas about the garden into her gorgeous, accessible, and curiously cohesive practice.

Indeed, in order to wrangle such complicated themes, Patterson requires a certain aesthetic sleight of hand. Her intricate, eye-catching tapestries and installations are like glistening spider webs, ensnaring viewers’ eyes with sparkles, then gradually revealing their dark undertones. “I’m using beauty as a tool,” she said, “as a kind of trap.”

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019