Mi Did Deh Deh
A candid conversation between two contemporary Jamaican artists.
Ebony G. Patterson - Untitled I (Khani+di Krew) From the Disciplez Series
OR: How did you transition from the earlier Meat series works towards the Vulvic works and then reaching to the new Dancehall-oriented/ focused works?
EGP: I was involved in events, you know going to parties and… I remember an interview and in that interview I had referenced ‘loving the vulgarness of bodies in Dancehall’ and the way bodies move in that space. I guess coming back more to the question, for me The Meat Series had a lot to do with beauty, and obviously before that when I was at Edna (Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), the last few works that I did made reference to Jenny Saville. So I still had her as a very strong reference at that time when I was making The Meat Series and The Vulvic works.
I guess at that time I was still struggling to find my own language and make a connection between my own context, and hence I started examining Jamaican curse words and looking at the visceralness of those words and how they connect to the body in many ways. Again I was very interested in talking about beauty, the grotesque and the body as it related to that, but after doing that I did another series of work called Hybrids. They were all of these nippled forms that were suspended in very open white space, and it was at that time that I began to get quite decorative. I started using a bit of wallpaper here and there, like cutting out and removing elements from the wallpaper to decorate these nippled forms, and then, I don’t know, I kind of caught myself thinking, ‘Do I just wanna keep making the same set of things over and over and over again, to what avail?’ So I started thinking ‘How could I talk about beauty in another way, umm, that didn’t seem like it was, you know, piggy-backing on so many other things?’
I had read an article in The Gleaner about criminals using bleaching to elude the police, and it just seemed so fascinating to me. Just thinking about this idea that the police are out there looking for a dark-skinned man yet a brown-skinned man is out there walking about. I thought it was interesting to see how beauty or things that are associated with practices of beauty are now crossing to criminality, and just thinking more about the process of bleaching itself; thinking about how that related to my own interest.
This is something that is quite a grotesque practice, but then at the same time it’s also quite a creative practice, because of the various kinds of concoctions people will use to lighten their skin. It’s quite a grotesque practice but a grotesque practice used to beautify, that is accepted. Something that was very widely practiced by women is now being marginalised by men, who have become even more involved in the practice.
So, you know, all of that became very interesting and I thought, well, criminality, beauty; how do I even begin to visually merge these two things that, you know, immediately may not have such a strong correlation? Maybe painting gangsters would be the way, you know, like actual real-life Jamaican gangsters would be the way to go about it… and that’s how the project started.
Ebony G. Patterson – Ednz- Khani+ di Krew – Mixed Media Installation (detail) – 2009
OR: That’s very interesting, ’cause I wanted to ask the next question being about self. All your work that I am familiar with has been involved in elements concerning Ebony’s identity so I wanted to know how does the work involving Gangstaz and bleaching etc. What do you think this has to do with what you as an artist feel about self?
EP: I guess you’re right, I’ve always found one way or another to talk about self. I guess my grad school experience was really good for me because then I began to think, well, ok, so I’m gonna make work about me, who cares, you know. How can I open it up so it doesn’t become so narrow and the discussion becomes more open, and it’ll involve my viewer a lot more instead of me screaming at the person that this is about me, me, me, me, me? How can I allow that person to enter the work and place themselves within the work?
So I guess that’s why there was this slight departure from the work having this strong autobiographical take. I thought that it was more poignant for me to speak about these other things. Other things that are still of great interest to me because, as I did say, I am involved in Dancehall. You know I was just telling somebody, when I am not home and I know it’s time to make a trip home, a month before coming home I make sure I start surveying all the latest dances so I am up to scratch….
I guess in that way that’s how I see myself being involved in the work, because I feel like I have a very strong connection to dancehall, because it’s my generation’s music. At the same time I guess I also have concerns about certain discussions surrounding Dancehall and the kind of attention it has been getting. Not so much in a positive light but in the negative sphere, but at the same time I also feel like the position I have taken where the work is concerned… I guess I feel like I am presenting the contradictions within the community and asking people to take these things into consideration. I guess I see myself as some kind of Dancehall mediator or cultural mediator in some ways.
Just thinking about the contradictions, not just as it relates to Dancehall but as it relates to our wider society, because I do see Dancehall as this kind of waterhole that re-enforces and affirms certain kind of cultural beliefs, so I think it spins right back into the wider Jamaican context. I feel like it can be pinned into our wider context. Our own beliefs are not so specific to us as it relates to a conversation about gender as it relates to masculinity. You will find that a lot of the ideas that we have as a people here are rippled throughout the Black Diaspora and I’ve even seen a very strong correlation between Dancehall and Rap culture and Hip-Hop culture and the same kind of contradictions also exist there.
OR: So when we spoke earlier you mentioned doing heads and… what was the other name for them, it was heads and…?
EGP: It was just heads.
OR: Ok, but immediately because of painting and the context, they are read as portraits.
OR: I don’t think, well certainly myself, I can’t get away from associating them until I am educated on what the artist wanted, so what was the kind of engagement then with this idea of a head or a portrait in the work and also about the motifs around it.
EGP: Ok, well, one of the things that I was saying before that I was incredibly concerned about was, you know, people make these associations that this is about a particular person. And of course one of the obvious questions I would get, which is a very human question, is ‘Who is that?’ Who is this person? And I didn’t necessarily want it to be about Jim Brown who is living next door or, you know, Max who was living down the road from you, but rather I wanted people to kinda think about these images in a wider construct. That this could be somebody within your own family. So when choosing images I made sure that I chose somebody who was, as I said, Jamaican, they fell within a particular age range.
I think it’s really poignant to associate the practice with this kind of involvement with a young generation; with the youth populace. And they also had to be black, because I think in many ways–I think the problems or the shifts in masculinity isn’t happening for the little brown-skin person living in Jacks Hill, you know what I mean. I guess I am also interested in where these people come from too. What kind of socio-economic background they come from, because of course this kind of reconstructed idea of masculinity is happening in particular places. It is happening amongst people who come from a particular socio-economic background. In thinking about the work, that’s how I began to construct some of these ideas… What was the other part of the question?
OR: Motifs. There are motifs around the work that, I don’t know if I am right, but I have seen things that resemble fish.
EGP: Yeah it does, they are.
OR: And then there’s the doilies. Just talk about that for a bit.
EGP: So the fish, I mean obviously I am also playing with our cultural language or rather slang here in Jamaica but then at the same time I am also referencing I guess… art history as it relates to images that have a particular symbolism to them. So a fish is a feminine symbol and also here in Jamaica, when you use the word ‘fish’ in relation to somebody, it means that they are male and homosexual. So I am also playing up the language within the work, but then at the same time a fish is also a Christian symbol, which is also something that’s interesting that’s kind of thrown into the work.
The doily is also something that is quite easily associated with the domestic, which also has a wider discussion that is associated with feminism in the same way that wall paper does. So I am trying to use all of these things that have been historically related to the feminine and then using that again with the masculine that is being reshaped by these once considered very feminine things.
OR: And what about the question of visual memory, its vocabularies and the part that plays in your work?
EGP: In relation to the works that I am dealing with now from the Gangstaz for Life series, I guess I have always thought of them in relation to minstrelsy, a kind of reverse minstrelsy. Especially because the practice of skin bleaching is done widely in the Dancehall community but it was something that started with dancers. It also became this signature for people who were coming up with these creative moves within Dancehall space and I guess in some ways it becomes almost like a kind of masking. It’s hard for me not to think about minstrelsy, which happened up to during the 70’s with that kind of relationship. Blackface has always had a performative association and I guess in many ways Jamaica’s Whiteface has the same kind of association, but in some ways it’s not even related to a dialogue about race, but a dialogue about fashion.
Second Section: Ebony G. Patterson interviews Oneika Russell about her work, experiences and their co-relation.
Oneika Russel – video still 2 – The Sea
EGP: I remember what your work was like when we were both students at Edna Manley, and then I remember your work transitioning as a result of you having gone to graduate school in Britain, so what I would like to really ask is, how did Singapore change or affect your work, and why Japan?
OR: I think the work you’re referring to is Porthole (2008). The thing about Singapore and being on a residency [is] it gives you time and space. You may have ideas, but lack of time and studio space in Jamaica was something I battled with… Porthole was an extension of the videos that had to do with the video The Sea (2007), exhibited in the Materialising Slavery (2007) exhibit at the Institute of Jamaica. But I didn’t have the time or space to work on the project until Singapore.
So actually the first part of the residency I spent working on the project for Curator’s Eye III, then I moved on to do a series called In the Night Garden, which had less to do with the sea and more to do with botanical gardens. Singapore allowed me the time, space and the concentration to work on this idea.
Why Japan? Ahh… well, as you know, opportunities in Jamaica for artists are few and far between, and I wanted to get away from my environment for a bit, because I didn’t feel like I was getting anything stimulating for my work at that time, so I was scoping out opportunities. So having been to Singapore, which is Asia, and then discovering opportunity in Japan, which is known for anime and its visual culture, I thought I could only gain from this experience. In Japan, I am now able to have the time and facilities to work on ideas I had in Jamaica, but without that the necessary support and facilities these ideas would be just that, ideas in a book.
EGP : You often use panels in your work. How does this function conceptually?
OR: I remember using panels even while I was at Edna, when I had been even working on canvas. I have always had a strong interest in narrative. One that is open and engaging. My frames of reference for a narrative at the time, were cartoons, film, animation etc. This was always in the back of my mind–even while I was painting I was always making a film, a story, and then that moved into photography, which facilitates much more and is also the core element for film, and also video. I think with particularly digital video you don’t really see the image-by-image development. So whenever I do a series of images I can kind of imagine what the narrative will be like and that will lead to video.
EGP : Could you tell me a little bit more about The Sea? This was also in the Mi Did Deh Deh exhibit at the Morlan Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky.
OR: This was the first ‘sea’ video–after taking tons of photographs and playing with collage in paper I wanted to see how the aesthetic of what I had found in paper would translate in video.
Untitled, from stills from a fictional film series, 2007
EGP: So what is the connection for you between female imagery and nature?
OR: It goes back to remembering in art school my engagement with art history and art history books, and figuring which images were most stimulating to me and which images stayed with me, and it was always these images that I didn’t focus on while in college, they were images from the Pre-Raphaelite to Victorian periods. Women that were often depicted as this romanticized idealized beauty, they were often luxuriating in gardens and ‘nature’. This structured what the ideal femininity would look like.
Construction, mixed media drawing, 2007
So I started thinking, I find this very interesting and very appealing, but I always asked, where am I in this picture? Where do I fit in, as I am now? And that is always at the back of my head when thinking about this. This construction of ideal femininity, as if it were a
‘natural’ way to be. So when I had my first solo show in 2006, I started to really focus on two environments in which my women or characters, would function in the sea, water and the land. The sea, a location which has all sorts of different motions, environments and eco-systems that can go with it and this is something that has been demonstrated throughout art history… as well as parks, a kind of ‘cultured landscape’. I think now there are two distinct bodies of work, one that has to do with the sea, the other with land and parks.
EGP: You are a young artist and it is very important to travel. Having had these experiences elsewhere, do you see yourself settling back home–do you think you will be able to adjust?
OR: I have always wanted to have a situation where I am able to live and work in Jamaica and do what I want to do in terms of my artistic practice. But being in a country where the art scene is geared in a certain way proves to be difficult, and I don’t want to teach about a practice that I am not involved in. The nature of the materials I have chosen requires a lot of resources, and it requires exposure to other things to stimulate it, so right now travel works for me. Ideally I would want to be in Jamaica, and it seems the more I go on, the more my practice references Jamaica. I always want to be relevant in Jamaica, but with the ambitions and experiences you want to have as an artist it is kind of difficult.
Oneika Russel – Porthole- video still – 4
EGP: Did your teaching experience at Edna Manley College affect or change your work?
OR: Yes, Edna Manley did change my work, but not as much as at the National Gallery, and I think I am still referencing things I experienced there. I was an artist frustrated, and I wanted to work in studio, so maybe I wasn’t making the best use of it or the time wasn’t ideal. But working in the Education Department, having access to all of these archival books, seeing curators and changes in exhibitions, was all very fascinating to me.
EGP: How does visual memory and its vocabulary function in your work?
OR: There are two senses of this, what we perceive and then what becomes memory. In my work in a physical sense, I think that my constant reference to the animation process is a more literal connection to this notion of memory, because of drawing. This becomes strongly connected to the physical nature of memory. On the other hand I also use a photographic process, so it is me recording in the environment a particular time or moment and then translating that into a personalised document. So in that sense I use literal visual documentation as memory and then translate that so it has a personal relationship. So for me personal and cultural history go hand in hand, and my work has always been about this.
For example, the ‘sea series’ which I am working on now started with images from Kingston Harbour, and the history reflected in that, and then working from that to an image. The images I use now are photographic locations on which I draw on its surface–that for me has a lot to do with visual memory. I record and then add my own language.
… That is that.
Abridged and transcribed by Oneika Russell, from a conference call with Ebony G. Patterson (2009)