In the camp and pageantry of her country’s dancehall culture, Jamaican-born artist Ebony Patterson sees much more than spectacle.
For Patterson, dancehall is both a window onto working-class Jamaican society and a crucible of vexing social issues and problems.
Gangsters and politicians, macho violence and homophobia, poverty and sexism all occupy a place in these outdoor mass music and dance events. Yet they also serve as a source of empowerment and identity — not to mention a showcase of style — for Jamaica’s economically disadvantaged urban youth.
“Dancehall is ultimately a celebration of the disenfranchised selves in post-colonial Jamaica,” writes leading dancehall scholar Sonjah Stanley-Niaah.
“Young lives in the Caribbean remain under siege, deprived, devalued and even expendable,” Trinidad-based artist Christopher Cozier writes in an essay about Patterson’s work.
Patterson tackles all of these aspects of the dancehall in her exhibit “Dy/nas/ty: Ebony G. Patterson” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. The spirit and personalities of these gatherings come alive in her riotously colored and patterned photo tapestries and a tableau-style installation.
Dancehall culture’s “strong gender-bending aspect” fascinates Patterson.
It’s always been macho, she said in a recent interview at the Nerman, but the look changed when the metrosexual trend landed in Jamaica in the early 2000s. Before that, “it was problematic for men to be associated with pretty things,” she said. Now “working-class gangs adopt garbs that confound traditional masculinity.” Her installation of 10 lifesize male mannequins on a chest-high platform covered with floral fabric crackles with this contradiction.
Their poses emit challenge and confidence, but it’s their outfits that grab the eye. All is pattern, flowers and rhinestones.
One seated figure wears harlequin-patterned pink and black pants and matching vest over skin “tattooed” with an ornately patterned red and black fabric. A pearl-beaded collar and two big watches complete the look; behind him a standing figure sports pink and beige brocade pants and vest over a printed shirt.
The others, including a man in graphic paisley-printed pants holding a baby on his lap, are similarly attired with lots of bling. Completing the gathering, a toddler rides a toy truck and another boy stands at the center amid neon-painted cinderblocks, more toys, silk flowers and bottles of booze.
Patterson domesticates this macho grouping by covering the gallery walls with floral-patterned wallpaper and suspending silk flowers above the platform from strings attached to the ceiling. And there are more flowers around the base.
The height of the platform accords the grouping an altar-like appearance, a deliberate strategy by Patterson to “give power or place to the powerless within society.”
She takes the same tack with her photo works, hanging them high on the floral-wallpapered walls of the adjacent gallery — one reprises the circular format of a Renaissance tondo.
The earliest work, “Entourage” from 2010, is a digital photograph printed on a nylon banner; the others are lavishly embellished photo tapestries. All are part of her “Fambily” series. Their topic is the role of the gang as a surrogate family, but the models are all people Patterson knows. Now based in Lexington, Kentucky, where she teaches in the painting department at the University of Kentucky, Patterson was raised in Kingston.
“I work with models and friends and a tailor in Jamaica to make the outfits,” she said.
Patterson poses and photographs the figures, then edits the images in Photoshop before sending them to Wal-Mart to be turned into jacquard tapestries.
“I’m using King Kitsch to manufacture the work,” she said. “(Wal-Mart is) the only one who can produce tapestries at this size and this price.”
It takes about a week for the tapestries to come back. Then she gets to work on the surfaces, adding glitter, silk flowers, rhinestones, fringe, even sunglasses.
The results are shimmery and festive. One tapestry is accompanied by an array of fabric-covered balloons.
“I’m using dancehall signage to talk about something more complex,” she said. “I’m interested in looking at the structure in which masculinity and ideas of maleness are learned.”
That structure is the gang. As Patterson observed, in a culture often lacking a male paternity figure, the gang leader becomes a surrogate father.
In “Entourage,” two women and several children function as props in a pyramidal grouping dominated by an alpha male. “Having a woman affirms masculinity,” Patterson said. “He has two and a flock of children.”
“Brella Krew,” an elaborate triptych, is a masterpiece of costumery and posing. “I have to take them on the terms they present themselves,” Patterson said. “(It’s) gender as performance.” But she also likes it when her photographs capture the moment before a model has assumed his or her projected persona within the hierarchy of the gang family.
It’s a “complex relationship,” she said, one too often viewed from a narrow perspective that stigmatizes people trapped in these rough communities. Few Americans probably gave more than passing notice to the June 2010 arrest of Jamaican drug lord and gang leader Christopher Michael Coke, known as “the don of all dons.” But his extradition to the U.S. had a seismic impact on poverty-ridden west Kingston, home base for the international drug-trafficking operations of his Shower Posse gang.
When Jamaican security went in to extract him, civil war broke out among the gang leaders, and the community rallied to defend him, Patterson said.
“The don did good things for the community,” she added. With his removal, “everything toppled,” and a kind of “jungle justice” prevailed. Ironically, the “little legitimate opportunities” that had grown up around the gang economy also suffered with the don’s removal.
It’s one of the many contradictions that bedevil and define Jamaica’s urban poor.
As Cozier contends in his essay for Patterson’s show, “In the Caribbean world, the real gangsters are the new, well-dressed estate managers; the politicians who sell flags and promises (the vapors) while equality remains elusive and postponed.”
But people cope. And as Patterson shows us with all the dazzle she can muster, dancehall, for all its flaws, is one way of doing it with dignity and incomparable style.
“Dy/nas/ty: Ebony G. Patterson” continues at Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through June 15. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Admission is free. For more information, go to NermanMuseum.org or call 913-469-3000.