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Issue No. 16 - Chaos

Ebony G. Patterson at Studio Museum Harlem

Ebony G. Patterson at Studio Museum Harlem

Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson. . . they were just hanging out you know . . . talking about . . . ( . . . when they grow up . . . ), 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones and glue on digtial print on hand-cut matte photo paper, 90 × 225 in. overall (3 panels: 88 × 94 in.; 88 × 47 in.; 90 × 84 in.) / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery
Pink
Pink
Image above: ©Elizabeth Mealey, Opening Night

Ebony G. Patterson’s new exhibit, “…when they grow up…,” a mixed-media installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, tackles the subject of violence committed against Black children in a fashion that is simultaneously playful and poignant. Recalling the multiple recent incidents of police brutality against Black children, notably Tamir Rice and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Patterson’s work evokes the innocence of childhood, and challenges the all-too-common societal perception of Black youths as more “adult”—and more dangerous—than their peers.

Patterson-they were just boys_detail 1
Patterson-they were just boys_detail 1
Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson. . . they were just boys (. . . when they grow up . . .), detail, 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, ribbons, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut matte photo paper, with hand-embellished plastic toy guns, 88 × 116 1/2 in. overall (3 panels: 88 × 39 1/2 in.; 88 × 39 in.; 88 × 38 in.) / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

The exhibition is delightfully playful. Patterson’s photographs of Black children, often laughing or making silly faces, are embellished with beads and rhinestones like arts-and-crafts projects. The entire space is decorated like a child’s playroom, complete with colorful balloon-like balls hanging from the ceiling and butterflies on the walls. And yet, just under the surface, lie memories of tragedy and violence.

Patterson_12_detail 1
Patterson_12_detail 1
Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson, (. . . when they grow up . . .), 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, ribbons, toy car, plastic letters, feathered butterflies, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut watercolor paper, 73 × 51 in. / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

So many elements in this exhibit are reminders of ever-present danger and fear. The photographs, printed on watercolor paper, are peppered with hand-cut holes that are almost (but not) disguised amongst the business of color and embellishment. The porousness of the paper lends a fragility to the portraits that is present but not immediately apparent. Until one of the holes punches through a boy’s face, or a girl’s chest. Like an oversized bullet. Like a death that was always a possibility lurking in the background, and suddenly strikes.

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Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson, (. . . when they grow up . . .), 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, magnetic letters, ribbons, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut watercolor paper, 66 1/2 × 53 in. / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

Vital to the imagery and symbolism of this exhibit are artifacts that simultaneously recall childhood and violence. Toy soldiers. Toy crossbows. Toy guns. The guns, bedazzled with beads, buttons, and colorful textiles, are almost camouflaged amidst the other sparkling and colorful elements of the exhibit, and yet they stand out as painful reminders: a Black child in a playground, shot dead because police mistook a toy for a weapon, a child for a threat; real guns killing and cutting short so many possibilities.

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Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson, ( . . . when they grow up . . . ), 2016, Beads, appliques, ribbons, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, toy car, plastic letters, feathered butterflies and glue on digtial print on hand-cut watercolor paper, 73 × 51 in. / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

However, despite symbols of violence and fear threaded throughout, the work is much less about victimhood, and more about resistance.

Patterson’s imagery exalts Black children. Her focus on their innocence verges on worship. Four photographs against one wall depict youths gazing out at us, with calm or silly expressions, and halos around their heads like portraits of saints. Written across the front of one boy’s hoodie, in plastic refrigerator-magnet letters, is one word: WORTHY. The work centers Black children’s worth in another way as well: amongst all the toys that line the walls of the room, from stuffed animals to crayons, are Black dolls. Dolls of any other race are significantly absent—only those that reflect the complexions of the children who play with them have been chosen. Feeling represented by the dolls they play with has been linked to children having a more positive self-image.

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Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson, ( . . . when they grow up . . .), 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, plastic letters, feathered butterflies and glue on digital print on hand-cut watercolor paper, 61 × 49 in. / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

The work also pushes back against the trope of the hyper-masculine Black male, an idea that contributes to the perception of Black boys, in particular, as being more dangerous than their peers of other races. The playroom-themed exhibit space is stereotypically girlish, with wall-to-wall pink plush carpeting, and floor-to-ceiling pink polka-dotted walls. The buttons, pearls, and other embellishments on the toy guns—guns being typically associated with boys rather than girls—give them an air of femininity. And though stereotypical “boy things”—a Spiderman backpack, a baseball bat—are present in the room, they fade into the background, engulfed by the pink and the sparkles. Most interesting is the artist’s choice to attach rhinestones, like earrings, to many of the boy’s ears. By queering the masculinity of the images and objects in the room, Patterson resists and rejects the idea that Black boys are hyper-masculine and therefore threatening.

Patterson-they were just boys_detail 2
Patterson-they were just boys_detail 2
Image above: ©Ebony G. Patterson. . . they were just boys (. . . when they grow up . . .), detail, 2016, Beads, appliques, fabric, glitter, buttons, costume jewelry, trimming, rhinestones, ribbons, and adhesive on digital print on hand-cut matte photo paper, with hand-embellished plastic toy guns, 88 × 116 1/2 in. overall (3 panels: 88 × 39 1/2 in.; 88 × 39 in.; 88 × 38 in.) / Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery

Patterson’s work is captivating in its intricacy, and requires the viewer to spend time with it in order to absorb the many layers of meaning present in every detail. But it is time well spent. Amidst all of the heavy messages, Patterson’s work is above all a celebration of the value of Black children’s lives.

Text by Elizabeth Mealey
Ebony G. Patterson:...when they grow up... is on view at Studio Museum Harlem until June 26, 2016 at 144 West 125th Street, New York, New York
Richard Learoyd at Pace/Macgill Gallery

Richard Learoyd at Pace/Macgill Gallery

Jane Stevens at Ceres Gallery

Jane Stevens at Ceres Gallery