Review: …While the Dew is Still on the Roses…

…While the Dew is Still on the Roses…
Ebony G. Patterson
Speed Art Museum

 

It almost feels humid walking through Ebony G. Patterson’s installation at the Speed Art

Museum. From the moment you step into …while the dew is still on the roses…, you become

immersed in a fictitious landscape, a “night garden”, that offers a beautiful and lush

environment growing over heavy topics and concerns surrounding issues of race, invisibility,

and violence. From the ceiling lush greenery and strung flowers reach toward the floor while a

deep purple floral fabric covers the walls, shrouding the rooms in darkness. The effect is

instantly magical and sacred, requiring quiet voices and soft steps as you make your way

among the pieces.

 

In the first room from the title wall, viewers are greeted by hundreds of strung flowers that

float delicately around your body as you enter the room. On the wall opposite the entrance,

three large video projections depict a wooded natural setting, where dense plant life fills the

screens to the left and right. In the center two ambiguous figures, one dressed in all white, the

other in all black, live within a clearing in the forested setting. The installation and video

projections are titled: The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical

Narrative and they offer viewers a chance to observe these gender and racially anonymous

figures, who appear to live outside any known society. Gazing at them as outsiders, we become

aware that we have in essence, encroached upon someone else’s space, turning the figures into

a project or an experiment worth studying.

 

As the first piece the audience encounters when visiting Patterson’s …While the Dew is Still on

the Roses…, The Observation informs the viewer that they have entered an othered space—

one they will remain in for the entirety of their visit. The piece is reminiscent of Coco Fusco’s

1992 performance Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, a collaboration with

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, in which the two publicly displayed themselves in a cage claiming to

be natives of an undiscovered island. In both pieces, the pairs on display are from unknown

fictional locations, and are seen completing various tasks or rituals. Additionally, both allude

to the history of displaying people from exotic cultures and our history of othering those

considered other, tribal, or primitive in comparison to the Western World. By creating an

immersive gallery experience, Patterson quickly transfers the viewer to her “imaginative

geography”(1) bringing them into her own land as outsiders.

 

Walking deeper into Patterson’s “night garden” we reach the main gallery where a set of floral

funeral cones occupy the center of the room, directing our bodies to the perimeter. On the

walls Patterson’s tapestries hang boldly against the dark floral wallpaper, organized messes of

sequins, glitter, animals and body parts, beads and tassels sewn neatly together to create small

narratives around the room.

 

In her piece Dead tree in a forest a large figure haloed in gold lies dormant amongst a pattern

of light blue flowers, while a crowd of patterned silhouetted bodies linger around her, floating

in and out of focus against the sparkling green background. Strips of cheetah and tiger stripe

pull up from the bottom of the piece forming a forest around her. Another piece, Golden Rest,

Dead Treez presents what appears to be a shiny, gold colored discarded jacket mixed into an

array of plant material, beaded necklaces and tossed shoes. The brightly colored fabric, glitter,

and beads suggest the aftermath of a celebration.

 

In both Dead tree in a forest and Golden Rest, Dead Treez the main focal point of the works is

the body or perceived body centered in the compositions. Surrounded by glitter, tassels, fabric,

recognizable and unrecognizable objects, the tapestries are equally haphazard messes and

intricately designed. These compositional elements are present in the majority of her mixed

media pieces, and for Patterson represent “youth culture within disenfranchised

communities” and simultaneously the invisibility of individuals of color and marginalized

groups. In these works, invisibility is reflected in the perceived disregard and abandonment of

the bodies buried within the glittering parameters of her pieces. Even while being leered at the

body in Dead tree in a forest feels isolated in the canvas as though on display.

 

For Patterson these bodies are meant to allude to current events, and serve as memorials for

the bodies of black individuals who have been killed and brutalized by the police in the United

States. [2] Occurrences that are not only frequent but infrequently covered by mainstream

media. Together with the gallery’s center funerary cones, the major themes of the main gallery

center on death, marginalization, voyeurism and objectified bodies.

 

In Edward Said’s Orientalism, he says that the “…imaginative geography of the ‘our land /

barbarian land’ variety does not require that the barbarians acknowledge the distinction. It is

enough for us to set up these distinctions in our own minds.”[3] In this passage, Said argues

that the physical boundaries between people are not what matters when it comes to othering

cultures differing from our own, but that creating the boundaries within our mind’s is enough

to create the distinction between us and them.

 

Creating the physical boundaries of place in her work, Patterson is able to reference the reality

of the outside world and the imagined social boundaries that exist within society. From the

beginning, Patterson has set us up to become trespassers in her night garden, spectators to the

deaths and disenfranchisement of the individuals she depicts. Starting with our initial

encounter of The Observation, the audience has been made to act as voyers and witnesses as

they move about the exhibition. Trespassing in her night garden we become akin to those

marginalized in western society—who are seen as trespassers in what is considered our

normalized society.

 

Before exiting while the dew is still on the roses audiences come across a final set of videos.

Titled 3 kings weep, the side by side projections are presented as a massive installation, and

depict three black male bodies going through a slowed process of dressing/undressing. The

silent video loops to show the men removing jewelry, jackets, and shirts, while tears run down

their faces. With 3 kings weep, we become witness to the decay and appropriation of culture as

it is asked to assimilate into Western Culture. From the initial video of the figures in the jungle

to the facelessness we are prevented in the gallery, and finally to the three men before us.

Entering and Exiting while the dew is still on the roses Patterson reminds us of our history of

objectifying bodies, and whilst inside, the ramifications of this objectification emerge.

 

 

Footnotes:

[1] Said, Edward W. “ORIENTALISM.” The Georgia Review 31, no. 1 (1977): p. 167

[2]Clara Zevi, The Disturbing Truth Buried Within Ebony G. Patterson’s Lavish Tapestries, in artnet news, August 2015, accessed on September 8,

2019, retrieved from: https://news.artnet.com/market/ebony-patterson-tapestries-326392

[3] Said, Edward W. “ORIENTALISM.” The Georgia Review 31, no. 1 (1977): p. 167