Sugar Tears

In highly ornamented pieces that seduce the eye, Ebony G. Patterson touches deep colonial wounds and stresses the need to discuss them – without ending up in a muddle.

Ebony G. Patterson, …among the flowers between the blades…while the dew is on the roses…for those who bear/bare witness, 2018 (detail). Photo: RCH Photography. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

In the fourth season of The Crown, a young Prince Charles visits Princess Margaret at her private estate on the island of Mustique, in the West Indies. Walking through the garden, the Prince, famously a passionate botanist, points beyond the frame and exclaims: “Look at these heliconias! Is that a silk cotton tree?” In this setting, charged by social privilege and colonial history, it is tempting to read the prince’s fascination with exotic plants as a tangential reference to British imperialism. 

Botany became a very fashionable activity in Victorian England, as did gardening, both boosted by the excitement and curiosity around plants imported from all corners of the British Empire. During this time, the famous Kew Gardens opened its doors to the public for the first time, for Britons to admire the discoveries of the Victorian ‘plant hunters’. It is no coincidence that this period also marks the peak of British imperialism; the history of gardening is inextricably connected to the imperialist drive for conquest. Behind exotic flowers, in the dark folds of the palatable narrative of scientific discovery, lies the history of colonial expropriation. It is these creases which Ebony G. Patterson’s solo exhibition at Kunsthal Aarhus, the Jamaican-born artist’s first presentation in Denmark, inhabits.  

A floor-to-ceiling wallpaper, composed of close-up pictures of flowers at dusk covers the walls in the first gallery, where dim lighting adds to the nocturnal and slightly unsettling effect of the floral motifs. In contrast to this, a large colourful wall piece shimmers through an intricate assemblage of embroidered textiles: silvery threads, pearls, sequins, buttons, and all sorts of treasures that remind me of the awe I felt as a child in haberdashery shops. It takes some looking before I can recognise, within the lush composition of tropical plants and flowers, the outlines of two human bodies without heads, hands, and feet. In this absence, they appear to be reduced to patterned garments. 

Ebony G. Patterson, …among the flowers between the blades…while the dew is on the roses…for those who bear/bare witness, 2018. Handcut jacquard woven photo tapestry with acrylic, trim, embellishments, fabric, giclee print, glitter, beads, pins, brooches, and plastic bugs, on artist-designed fabric wallpaper, 360.7 x 513.1 cm. Photo: RCH Photography. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago.

Two similarly ornamented and colourful pieces lie on the floor (Root and Shrub and Root and Shrubz, both 2014). Here, plastic flowers and toys are placed on an embroidered base, alongside firearms camouflaged in floral motifs. The works’ seductive shine is a device for distraction from the violence beneath the surface, a valid metaphor for heroic colonial narratives. After all, to this day Kew Gardens’ website celebrates the epic missions of ‘plant hunters’ while omitting any reference to the violence of these imperialist endeavours. These blinding and shimmering surfaces make me think of sparkling sugar crystals, and of the bitterness behind their production. Europe’s appetite for sweets was one of the main drivers of colonial exploitation, and surely, Denmark’s colonisation of the West Indies and disgraceful involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. 

A three-channel video (…three kings weep…, 2018) in the second gallery wraps up the show in what feels like a two-room installation. The piece shows three Black men putting on clothes and covering their bare chests, their faces shining with tears. Arranged as a triptych within a space that has a church-like atmosphere, the piece has a trinitarian reference, a nod to Christianity that can also be found in the exhibition title, a wordplay on the biblical text:  …for those who come to bear/ witness… . These references seem to address evangelisation as the sugar-coated narrative for colonial exploitation, just another kind of embellishment of a brutal history. After all, Patterson’s flair for adornment recalls the excessive ornamentation of the Baroque, a style which, in connection to the Catholic Church’s colonial efforts, became art history’s first global ‘brand’.

Reflecting on the exhibition, I cannot shake from my mind images from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Perhaps there is a relation between the ‘wonderland’ of the Victorian novel – where things are never what they seem and power rules viciously, with a sense of inviolable entitlement – and the sinister sides of Patterson’s seductive botanical landscapes. A true fan of Carroll’s book, Gregory Bateson formed the idea of a metalogue, a dialogue whose form takes the same shape of the question it is investigating. One of these dialogues starts by asking: “Why do things get in a muddle?” As the conversation progresses, the discussion itself muddles up. 

This reminds me of what we have recently witnessed in Denmark following the so-called ‘bust action’ at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. The media-fostered debate that ensued has shown how difficult it still is to engage with the country’s colonial history, even when the discussion is prompted within the frame of artistic institutions and practice.

Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibition has its own artistic logic, which is consistent with the issues it wishes to raise around colonial histories. These are urgent questions in Denmark, where structural racism is alive and kicking beneath the shiny surface of the perfect society for anyone with the ‘right’ skin colour and religion. The hope is to be able to engage such questions beyond a metalogue, and rather tackle the task at hand: decolonisation not only as a historical process, but also as a challenge to internalised racial power structures. Now, how do we go about that?

Ebony G. Patterson, …three kings weep…, 2018 (detail) still from three-channel video.