Atlanta

Invisible Presence: Bling Memories at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

On May 8, 2001, the funeral of William Moore, aka Willie Haggart, was a raucous affair. Abandoning the somber mood of a typical funeral, the ceremony was a giant party at the National Arena in Kingston, Jamaica. Labeling it a “celebrity event,” Donna P. Hope writes that the style of Haggart’s funeral “ruptured the sobriety and mourning associated with traditional funeral rites.”[1] With this, the term bling funeral entered the mainstream, and such ceremonies—and the ruptures they instigate—are the subject of Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibition, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The exhibition consists of twenty elaborately decorated coffins mounted on tall wooden poles, objects that originated from a performance conceived by Patterson for the 2014 Carnival in Kingston, Jamaica.[2] On April 27 of that year, Patterson carried fifty ostentatious coffins on poles with the help of local Jamaicans; accompanying them were several dancers and a drum line from the St. Michael’s Steppers community marching band. Evoking a bling funeral, the procession matched the boisterous and celebratory tone of Carnival.

Patterson’s decision to stage the performance during Carnival is a comment on the deep divide between social classes in Jamaica, as the Carnival celebrations are designed for the island’s upper and middle classes. The performance attempts to provide the working poor not only access to the ceremonies but also an unmistakable presence by using the spectacle of bling funerals. In such celebrations, closely linked to the underclass, the dead are remembered through raucous dancing parties featuring erotic costumes and dancehall music.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The elaborately adorned coffins in the exhibition are the only remaining trace of this performance, and they offer insight into the opulent displays of bling funerals. In contrast to typical coffins of black and other somber colors, these coffins feature vivid fabrics with bold patterns, rhinestones, lace, tassels, and plastic foliage, among other materials. The fabric patterns range from bright colors with polka dots to elaborate floral and animal prints. Each coffin features multiple swatches of cloth—usually with a different pattern on each face—and is trimmed with rhinestones and lace.

The construction of the coffins also relates to Jamaica’s working class. Upon close examination, the seams between the fabric swatches are not perfect; on some, strips of ribbon or lace are falling off or running haphazardly through the cloth. Many also show signs of wear, reinforcing the idea that these were integral components of a performance. Such qualities emphasize the handmade aesthetics of the coffins, linking them to the textile industry of Jamaica. While some fabric patterns feature the colors of the nation’s flag—black, green, and yellow—most were chosen for their brilliant designs, linking them culturally to bling funerals rather than a national identity.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

The installation of these objects in the exhibition is particularly noteworthy, with twenty of them densely arranged in a relatively small gallery. Viewers are invited to walk among them. The bottom of each coffin is about sixty inches from the ground, forcing the viewer’s gaze upward and restricting one’s ability to see the upper portions of the coffins. The resulting mass resembles the earlier performance; the coffins are not presented didactically as individual objects for visual consumption. Instead, the installation beckons viewers to participate, envisioning themselves as part of the procession during Carnival. Additionally, though each coffin is individually decorated, the dense grouping of the installation prevents any one from being viewed on its own. The show eschews object labels or any other classification system that would denote them as works of art. They simply are what they are: markers of the performance in Kingston.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Ebony G. Patterson. Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, 2014; installation view, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy of the Artist and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Writing about bling funerals, Hope asserts that they “temporarily suspend social boundaries and momentarily rotate the distinctions between those defined as heroes and anti-heroes in Jamaican culture.”[3] The blinged-out coffins in this installation demand attention, and they point to a group of people normally operating at the margins of society. Stretching up toward the sky, the coffins on display in the gallery—as well as during the performance—reinforce Patterson’s motivation to dissolve such social barriers, to include Jamaica’s underclass not only in a typically restricted event such as Carnival but also in the larger society.

Invisible Presence: Bling Memories is on view at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through April 21, 2016.

 

[1] Donna P. Hope, “From the Stage to the Grave: Exploring Celebrity Funerals in Dancehall Culture,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 13 (3): 260.

[2] The performance was one of several commissions realized during the 2014 Carnival season in conjunction with the exhibition EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, organized by and on view at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, March 7–June 7, 2015, and co-organized as a traveling exhibition by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York.

[3] Hope, 265.

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