Not exactly an art aficionado, as usual I’ve been a bit late cottoning on to the work of Ebony G. Patterson, but it seems everyone’s talking about her so I thought I would share my initial response. I found about these particular pieces through the Ghetto Biennale, the alternative international art show that took place in Haiti in 2009, which unfortunately I was unable to attend. For the event Patterson created a series of sequined flags, referencing traditional Haitian Vodou Drapos. As it was recently pointed out to me these things were huge!! (of course yes I know the rule is never to talk about artworks that you’ve never seen in real life yourself, but these digital pixels in the clouds have moved me to investigate further, despite my absence from the actual event) As visitors to the exhibit entered the space, they were allegedly bursting into tears. This is how powerful the imagery was.
The flags depict young Jamaican males, so-called “gangster youths”, disguised, feminised and embellished as Vodou lwa (spirits). The above image is of lwa Erzili Freda, who is a female spirit known to be incredibly beautiful, flirtatious, jealous…and light-skinned. These works are therefore in conversation with the artist’s 2009 series, Gangstas, Disciplez + Doily Boyz, which explores the trend of skin-bleaching prevalent amongst young males in dancehall culture (see those horrendous pics of Vybz Kartel all over the internet, for the effects of this practice). Such beauty strategies were formerly adopted by criminals as a form of disguise, a way of ‘passing’ unnoticed by the police, enabling freedom of movement on the streets of downtown Kingston.
The clip below shows Patterson talking about the shifting attitudes in dancehall culture towards notions of display and decoration in relation to the gendered body. As she so astutely points out the most recent trend is for a feminised, highly ostentatious aesthetic, but one that at once leaves no question of a doubt as to the masculinity of its wearer. In fact I would go as far to say as these stylings positively emphasize the masculinity of their subject, through their very artifice. Self-conscious, loud and proud, these extravagant creations are very close to a more accurate definition of Camp, than the usages of the term often in circulation.
Patterson creates visual travesties, drawing on the brash campy décor of the subculture of dancehall. Her intention seems to have been to draw obvious parallels with the theatrical disguises and crossing of gender roles within Vodou. Moreover in doing so she emphasizes the theatricality of the everyday, what Sontag understood within Camp as “Being-as-Playing-a-Role” , yet also demonstrates the spatial limitations of where such theatricality and travesty might be deemed acceptable to be played out. Beyond the dancehall space, as she notes in the clip below, these visual codes of travestie would be instantly tied into sexuality and desire. The boundaries which mark the within the Vodou space and the beyond the Vodou space are far more permeable in Haitian culture as Patterson’s work explores.