Artist Exhibits Dance Culture
January 23, 2009 Leave a comment
by Rebecca Honaker
Jamaican artist Ebony G, Patterson casually spoke to an audience of students and professor’s about her work (Wednesday Jan. 21). Patterson discussed the powerful narrative behind the artwork in her collection in the ‘Mi di deh deh’ (I was there) exhibit currently displayed in the Morlan Gallery.
Upon first viewing the floor to wall mixed media prints of her ‘Disciplez Endz,’ one could see that they were more than simply portraits. The stunning portraits depict young men dressed in their glittering bling with faces that appear to have been lightened so that they no longer match the darker shade of the rest of their body. Piles of petals mixed with tampons painted gold to resemble bullets lie on the floor at the base of each portrait.
But there was something more that bound all of these elements together, something that one could not grasp without the knowledge of the ‘dance hall’ culture in Jamaica. The lightened faces are not simply the result of an artist skilled in Photoshop but are the product of a process called ‘bleaching’ that dates back to slavery in America. Bleaching is the practice of lightening one’s skin through the use of household chemicals or even creams that are now sold over the counter in Jamaica.
Patterson relayed a brief history of bleaching and its growing popularity in the dance hall culture of Jamaica. In her memory, it began with a song by a popular dance hall artist who sang about how much he loved “his brownie.” The brownie he referred to in the song was his girlfriend who had a light brown skin tone. Patterson recalled how after this song was released, “you would see the women at these parties dressed scantily and their faces would be lighter than the rest of their body.”
Later on the practice became common among the young men in the dance halls. Curious to know why the young men had taken on this practice, she asked a young man who replied, “This is the way the gangsters look.”
“Dance hall artists (we call them DJs) sing about what is going on in the community,” said Patterson, “and in the communities dons are seen as the providers and become the idea of masculinity.”
What had begun in dance hall culture as a means of increasing beauty and social standing turned into a means of showing one’s masculinity. Patterson sought to represent what she called “beauty meeting criminality” and the confused gender implications that surround the practice of bleaching in Jamaica with her mixed media portraits of young men from the dance hall culture.
She juxtaposes the femininity of the floral wallpaper, the flower petals and the glittering bling with the young men and their pale faces that have become a mark of their masculinity. The bullets fashioned from the casings of tampons are a representation of the feminine becoming something masculine and violent. These symbols all make up the narrative of bleaching transitioning from a mark of beauty, femininity and good social standing to a mark of masculinity and criminality.
‘Mi di deh deh’ will be showing in the Morlan Gallery Friday, February 27.