Such an amazing parallel to mass shootings here. And evokes the memorials that spring up at each one of those.
Black Lives Matter: Ebony G. Patterson's "Of 72" & "...and babies too..."
On May 23, 2010, Jamaican police and military entered the impoverished Kingston neighborhood Tivoli Gardens, a stronghold of drug lord Christopher Coke, leader of the infamous Shower Posse. The United States had ordered the extradition of the now-convicted Coke, and at least 73 civilians were killed by security forces as they searched for the man more commonly known as Dudus. (He wasn’t captured until June 23.)
Ebony G. Patterson’s Of 72 installation, on view at U-M’s Institute for the Humanities through Feb. 9, addresses this “state-sponsored mini-Armageddon,” as writer Annie Paul called it, and it also explores the complexities of black identity as a whole.
The mixed-media work by the Kingston born and raised Patterson features 73 square, intricately decorated fabric pieces hung on all four walls of the gallery. Each square is held in place by clothespins, evoking laundry lines strung in tenement yards. Digitally printed portraits of the Tivoli dead are in the centers of each square, but bandanas cover their faces; basically, all we see are eyes and some hair. The initial impression of these bandana-covered faces might be that they belong to gangsters, aligned with Dudus’ criminal operation. But the 73 victims in this tragedy have never been publicly identified. They are essentially anonymous, and we don’t know if they were henchmen or innocents, bad men or loving husbands. Maybe some of them were all those things and more. The anonymity of their deaths is reflected by their obscured, nameless faces in Of 72.
In her artist’s note and in a video outside the exhibition, Patterson asks a series of who, what, why, where, and how questions about the people on her squares, trying to give these eyes without a face their identities back:
The victims' photos rest inside circles, which conjures Christian iconography where a holy person's head is surrounded by a halo of light. The embroidery, floral appliqués, and rhinestones on each square feel like Day of the Dead altars at Mexican funerals, and the combined effect of the squares evokes the painted memorial murals you see on walls in Jamaica.
The piece is called Of 72 because that’s the number of men who were killed. But the 73rd victim was female, and her bandana is hung alongside the men’s, though it’s hard to pick her out immediately; there are least a half-dozen candidates who you might mistake for women. In other works, Patterson has explored gender-fluid fashion in hypermasculine dancehall culture, and in Of 72 she allows the Tivoli men with soft eyes to make you stop and think about what might be behind the hard facade. The lack of acknowledgment in the artwork’s title about the 73rd person killed could also be considered a commentary on how women are often the forgotten victims.
But those overlooked sufferers are addressed directly in ...and babies too..., an additional installation by Patterson on the floor of the same room as Of 72.
The mixed-media jacquard tapestry is 120 inches long and 58 inches wide, digitally embroidered with everyday images you might find in a home with children: a Skittles wrapper, Hello Kitty, baby dolls, a guitar, a Nerf gun. Alongside the My Little Pony patch and Matchbox car on the bead-and-glitter-festooned platform are glass shoes cast from women and children's footwear and hand-embellished with shiny baubles. These glass slippers, unlike the Cinderella story to which they potentially allude, speak to lost objects and lost lives, not royal serendipity and fairytale endings.
Under the tapestry, which sits 10 inches off the ground, is a traffic jam of toy vehicles. The police cars, fire trucks, and school buses seem to suggest everyday life goes on as the victims' memories hover above the city.
Amanda Krugliak, arts curator at the Institute for the Humanities, said in an email that she and Patterson decided to add the more recent ...and babies too... to the exhibition because it “is in conversation with Of 72, and continues to honor those who are missing, the imprint they leave behind, the black families, women, men, children, even babies that are affected by violence and abuse, that loss.”
A person familiar with Jamaica’s politics and culture can look at the two works and interpret them through that lens. But even if your exposure to the island begins and ends with Bob Marley, Of 72 and ...and babies too... can be viewed as commentaries on the gun crimes, misogyny, racism, and desensitization to violence happening in America right now: When was the last school shooting? When was the last police shooting? They all blur together. How many died? What were their names? Who did they love?
“Of 72 specifically honors or serves as a marker or remembrance for those who died as part of a police maneuver in Jamaica, a maneuver in which the U.S. played a role,” Krugliak said. “But on a larger scale, it embraces the loss of all black bodies, the presence and absence, what is left behind, the lost and missing, at the hands of police brutality.”
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
Ebony G. Patterson's "Of 72" & "...and babies too..." are on display through Feb. 9 at U-M's Institute for the Humanities gallery, 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor. The gallery is open Monday-Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. Patterson will talk about her work as part of the Stamps Speaker Series on Thursday, Feb. 1, 5:10 pm, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. A reception will follow the Patterson's "They were..." talk at the Institute for the Humanities. The exhibition, talk, and reception are all free. Visit lsa.umich.edu and the of72project.com for more info.