Ebony G Patterson's Amazing Year

Ebony G Patterson's Amazing Year

By Dr Veerle Poupeye

Sunday, March 25, 2018

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We have only just reached March and it is already evident that 2018 is shaping up to be an amazing year for Ebony G Patterson, the Jamaican artist who has arguably put contemporary art from Jamaica on the international map. She has received three major awards since the start of the year alone: the 2017 Tiffany Foundation Biennial Grant (which was announced in February 2018), as well as the prestigious United States Artists Award and the Stone & DeMcguire Contemporary Art Award.

The Tiffany Foundation Grant seeks to support outstanding artists to “produce new work and push the boundaries of their creativity” and the prestigious United States Artists Award is given to 45 artists and collectives who, in the words of that award's President and CEO Deana Haggag, “produce some of the most moving, incisive and powerful artistic work in this country”. The Stone & DeMcguire Contemporary Art Award is given to outstanding alumni of the Sam Fox School of Art, Washington University in St Louis, where Patterson obtained her MFA in 2006. All three awards involve substantial cash prizes. I asked her about the significance of these awards and she emphasised how important it was for her to get the support from her peers, since the first two are nomination-based, while the latter represents equally important recognition from her alma mater.

Meanwhile, Patterson is also preparing for a major solo exhibition, titled … while the dew is still on the roses…, at the Perez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM), along with several other solo exhibitions, at Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago and the Baltimore Museum of Art, just to name two. The PAMM exhibition is curated by Deputy Director/Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander and, Patterson disclosed to me, will take the form of an immersive, mixed media installation, which expands on the idea of the garden as a site for her recent meditations on black visibility/invisibility, gender and the black body, disempowerment and self-actualisation, and violence and death —a sort of perverse Garden of Eden in reverse, in which the natural and the artificial are seamlessly mixed, and which takes inspiration, and its title, from Olive Senior's famous poem Gardening in the Tropics. This installation will incorporate new and older work, including the Bush Cockerels multi-channel video Ebony has previously shown at the National Gallery of Jamaica, which is in my estimation one of her most outstanding works to date, and will have the exuberantly embellished visual and material qualities her work is known for. If you are in the Miami region between November 8, 2018 and August 18, 2019, make sure to visit PAMM!

And while 2018 is shaping up to be exceptional, Patterson's achievements in recent years have been consistently outstanding. In 2014, she was the recipient of the National Gallery of Jamaica's Aaron Matalon Award for the most outstanding work in the inaugural, 2014 Jamaica Biennial —she presented two installations at Devon House that year. In 2015, she had a solo exhibition, … when they grow up, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and another solo project, Dead Treez, was in 2016 shown at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. She was also featured in the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2016 and in the Prospect 3, in New Orleans, in 2015. In 2016, she also was commissioned to do an installation, titled … PRESENT for Barneys' Christmas windows in New York City and, just before the close of 2017, she received the Tiffany Foundation biennial award. This, too, is just a sampling of what is a truly impressive line-up of recent accomplishments.

Many in Jamaica may not be aware of how well Ebony G Patterson is doing, at least not internationally, and may not even know about her work as an artist, but her achievements are significant, not only for herself but also for Jamaica, and they must be recognised and celebrated as such. Her international career to date is unprecedented for an artist from Jamaica and, in the world of art, it represents an exciting counterpart to the achievements of our top athletes in the world of sports, achievements which are much far better known and more readily recognised. Her achievements have also helped to open doors for other young and emerging artists from Jamaica and to attract the international spotlight to contemporary art in the Caribbean. So we need to recognise and celebrate her achievements and this article seeks to contribute to that.

Ebony Patterson has always insisted on her personal and artistic groundedness in Jamaica as “home” and she states that she could not imagine living and working in the USA without maintaining that vital connection. She remembers gratefully that she was helped a lot by her teachers and other art supporters while she was a young art student and artist in Jamaica and, honouring this legacy, she takes “giving back” to the local art community very seriously. She has mentored and contributed to the development of several younger artists here, for instance by sponsoring the recent artist residencies of Camille Chedda and Kelley-Ann Lindo at Alice Yard in Trinidad, and she has assisted with tuition and project funding to deserving art students. And, heeding the advice given to her by her teacher and mentor Cecil Cooper, she has continued to work and exhibit regularly in Jamaica, where she maintains her main home.

My recent conversation with Patterson inevitably drifted to what it takes for artists from the Caribbean to do well, especially in the international arena. My concern has always been that young artists are often too passive about this, expecting opportunities to come to them by some magic that does not exist in the real world. To Patterson, the key is to be consistently committed to one's artistic practice and to pursue available opportunities actively, with the understanding that there will be many rejections and disappointments along the way — disappointments which are best handled with grace and which should be regarded as learning opportunities. She recognises that she has been very fortunate to have had access to high-profile exhibition opportunities, residencies and awards, but we agreed that the scarcity of such opportunities in the Caribbean itself is a major obstacle to the development of contemporary art in the region. In Jamaica, there are practically no project-funding opportunities for contemporary artists and this is seriously hampering the development of young artists who do not have access to other resources and who do not produce work that easily fits with local art market expectations. This is something for local funders and sponsors to look into urgently if the local art scene is to maintain the incredible momentum it has had in the last 15 years or so.

Patterson's success has been aided greatly by the excellent representation she has received from Monique Meloche Gallery which, by the way, also represents Amy Sherald, the artist who recently painted the portrait of Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Monique Meloche works very hard for her carefully selected artists and Ebony describes their relationship as a true partnership, in which she is given the support, opportunity and sound advice she needs to develop her artistic practice. Their shared successes illustrate the importance of the sort of visionary but practically grounded and well-informed gallery representation that Monique Meloche offers, a concept that is practically unknown in our neck of the woods, where much narrower (and less productive) conceptions about the relationship between artists and gallerists still prevail. And that, too, will have to change if contemporary art from the region is to reach its full, local and international potential.


Dr Veerle Poupeye is the immediate past executive director of the National Gallery of Jamaica.

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