Annie Paul | Invisible barriers
September 10, 2016, will see the official opening of the venerable Sao Paolo Biennale, the second oldest Biennale - a particular kind of global art exhibition held biennially - in the world.
To be curated into one of the big Biennales, Venice, Sao Paolo, Gwangju, is considered a signal honour and an acknowledgement for visual artists of their work being recognised internationally.
Art from the Anglophone Caribbean has generally been invisible at these mega-art events, but this year Jamaica should be very proud that homegirl Ebony G. Patterson will make her debut at the Brazilian Biennale with a series of works highlighting the vulnerability of black youth in societies as varied as Jamaica, Brazil and the United States. Patterson had previously made waves when some of her works were prominently featured in the second season of Empire, a high-profile American TV series about a hip-hop dynasty.
The commission to make work at this edition of the Sao Paolo Biennale grew out of Patterson's solo exhibition at the renowned Studio Museum of Harlem earlier this year. With evocative titles like '... They Were Just Boys' and '... When They Grow Up ...' the show's focus on the deadly intersection of race, class and youth resonated with the Sao Paolo curators who invited her to develop these themes further in Brazil, a country where young, poor, black teenagers are often the target of violence, whether state-sponsored or gang-related.
Patterson's artworks frame youngsters at play in the super colourful lace and tapestry concoctions embellished with beads, sequins and other shiny objects she has become known for. The violent deaths of youngsters, she believes, are a denial of their status as children, an insistence that they are adult and criminal. These works attempt to capture the playfulness of childhood while also recording the tragic trajectories of slain children. The background refuses to remain there, often dominating the foreground and submerging the figures in an abundance of glittery references. In some, the treatments are more traditional portraits centred around the head and shoulders of the subject, who now seems sanctified in the manner of Haitian saints, gilded with jewel-like adornments.
If the essence of dancehall could be distilled and translated into artistic text, its author would be Ebony Patterson. She, more than anyone, has understood the social role of bling, bleaching, and 'noise' among the urban poor in Jamaica; how such practices have been employed to restore visibility to the socially invisible; how they signify a firm and 'facety' refusal on the part of the poor "to be what you wanted us to be."
How fitting that with this spectacular body of work, Patterson has also obtained visibility for herself and the Caribbean in the rarefied circuits of international art.
We're accustomed to celebrating our singers and runners, but when Jamaicans excel in other fields much needs to be made of them, too, and it seems the media is beginning to realise this. In a recent editorial, The Gleaner had cause to celebrate a renaissance in Jamaican writing, referencing three Jamaican writers making waves internationally right now - Nicole Dennis-Benn, Kei Miller and Marlon James.
Dennis-Benn's is a particularly impressive debut, scoring big with her very first novel, Here Comes the Sun, a racy tale of sex, skin and success in Jamaica. I remember listening to her open the 2016 edition of Calabash Literary Festival with a reading from it, while Marlon James leaned over and whispered that he thought she was going to be really big. Sure enough, a mere few months since Here Comes the Sun came out, Dennis-Benn has been dominating American media, with rave reviews and interviews in all the main news outlets.
In one such interview, Dennis-Benn spoke eloquently of what writing meant to her:
"In the US - my new country, my new home - writing became a necessity for my survival. I wrote in journals, scribbling poetry to pacify my homesickness. I liked to imagine the words floating on water, carrying me back home. Writing helped me navigate the complicated relationship I had with home and, most importantly, with myself - each identity in conflict with the other. I wrote to make sense of it all."
Making sense of it all is what the best writers and artists aim for; we need to make space for them to do so frankly and fearlessly, for they make visible the things we sweep under the rug.
- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @anniepaul.