Woodbrook, Port of Spain; 25 July, 2011. It is a muggy, airless evening, but nonetheless the candles lined up along this stretch of pavement seem to blow out as soon as they’re lit. The trembling flames lead through a gate and up a short driveway, into the back yard of 80 Roberts Street. More candles — scores, hundreds — line every step and ledge. The effect is cosy and eerie at once. A colder light streams from a small room open to the driveway. Crammed into this room are nine coffins.
Except at first glance they don’t look like coffins at all. They look like giant gift boxes, perhaps, wrapped in gaudy fabrics and decorated with plastic lace, artificial flowers, glittering rhinestones. On closer inspection, their shape gives them away.
A few dozen of us have gathered in the yard, keeping one eye on the sky — will it rain? — and another on the trapezoidal boxes on conspicuous display. Who are they meant for? What ritual have we come here to enact? We know we are expecting something, but what?
Richard Rawlings lights candles for 9 of 219 Performance Night , Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 2011 (Image Courtesy of Rodell Warner and Alice Yard)
Then an announcement: we are all being pressed into service. The nine coffins must be lifted out of the small room, where they can barely fit, and carried out into the street. Where are they going? This tall, young woman dressed in white will lead the way. A modest mobile sound system — a rig of speakers pushed on a cart — will keep us company. All hands are needed: the coffins are empty, but they are heavy. The procession begins, at first with indecisive shuffling and nervous giggles, but soon everyone in the group — we thought we were an audience, but we’ve become something else — is concentrating on the coffins’ ungainly weight as we negotiate uneven pavements and kerbs. Meanwhile, the sound system plays a grim looping audio track: a series of short descriptions, culled from the newspapers, of recent murder cases: the victims’ names, circumstances of death, reminiscences of relatives, recited over a rhythm from the rapso group 3Canal.
From quiet Roberts Street the procession takes a clockwise route: east on Tragarate; south on Murray; west on Ariapita, past a popular Chinese restaurant and an intersection busy with nighttime limers and gawkers; north on Carlos. Here the flashing blue lights intervene. One or two of us join the young woman in white, parleying with the police officers in the truck. Meanwhile the procession tries to speed up, slip past.
We all make it round the last corner and back into the driveway on Roberts Street. Most of the candles have gone out. Our arms ache from the weight of the coffins, our palms smart from the sharp edges of the handles. The coffins are slid back into their little room. Sitting on the ground, leaning against walls, we pass cold drinks around. It hasn’t rained. The young woman in white begins to tell a story.
9 of 219 was a performance work created by Ebony G. Patterson during a residency at Alice Yard in July 2011. Though many of Patterson’s works include an element of performance, 9 of 219 was still a departure: not only public and site-specific, created with Alice Yard’s Woodbrook neighbourhood in mind, but time-bound, unfolding over the course of an hour or so, and dependent on the active — indeed, strenuous — participation of its audience.
At the same time, 9 of 219 shared with Patterson’s other recent projects a distinctive visual aesthetic: the clashing colours and textures of those heavily embellished coffins, a spectacle either baroque or camp or both. Her highly stylised “bling” exaggerates the visual elements of Jamaican dancehall culture, but this is no mere decorative homage. In series like Gangstas, Disciplez + the Doiley Boyz and Gully Godz, Patterson renders portraits of young men from Jamaica’s urban underclass in gaudily coloured, dizzyingly patterned, fake-gem-encrusted tableaux: “thugs” in lace, “bad men” in flowered chintz, their faces bleached and
Gully Godz in Conversation I , Mixed Media Photo Tapestry with Object and Hand Embellished Shoes on Wallpaper, 2010
made up with lipstick. The effect is to confront and confound her audience’s preconceptions about gender roles and sexuality. These are life and death matters, literally, in Jamaica, where homophobic violence coexists with a contemporary dancehall aesthetic in which young men dress in skin-tight clothes, bleach their faces, and use cosmetics — and where Vybz Kartel, dancehall controversialist of the hour, describes himself as “pretty like a colouring book”.
“Pretty” but vaguely threatening; deadpan but oddly comical; raising uncomfortable questions about the interconnections of masculinity, violence, poverty, and class through intricate compositions of cheerful kitsch materials: these aesthetic and cognitive dissonances give Patterson’s “dancehall” works their powerful presence. And they are why her images remain troubling long after the initial jolt of encounter. In a sense, her audience’s expectations are also Patterson’s raw materials, which she subjects to a kind of conceptual sculpting. In no straightforward or easily summarised way, these works set out to change minds.
Patterson arrived in Trinidad at a moment of cresting public panic at an accelerating rate of violent crime. (Less than a month later, the body count over one particularly bloody weekend became the justification for a national state of emergency, declared in late August and not lifted until December.) As of the day she began preparing the coffins, “219” was the official murder tally for 2011: a statistic updated daily in the press, an essential metric of everyday survival in the twenty-first-century Caribbean — along with the weather forecast and currency exchange rates. And “9” was the number of reported murders during Patterson’s first week in Trinidad, a period she spent overhearing media bulletins on the latest incidents of violence, and conversations among ordinary citizens emotionally battered into a mindset of anxious siege. Speaking at Alice Yard, Patterson recalled a woman in a Port of Spain shop reacting with a gut-wrenching cry of despair to the latest murder report on the radio. 9 of 219 was an attempt not merely to
9 of 219 installed in Yard , Port-of-Spain,Trinidad, 2011 (Image Courtesy of Rodell Warner and Alice Yard)
document this prevailing mood, or to memorialise nine particular victims, but to provoke a corporeal reckoning — to turn a cold statistic, an abstract number, into an experience felt in the bodies of her audience.
The invitation to 9 of 219 described the event as the recreation of a “bling” funeral — the transposition of a Jamaican cultural phenomenon into a different but not alien circumstance. But when the audience members hoisted the coffins and trudged out into the street, an artist’s performance work in the form of a spiritual ritual became also an act of collective protest. The police squad who soon arrived to observe the proceedings were the unwitting confirmation.
Earlier that day, in response to a neighbour’s report that “people were dragging around coffins” at Alice Yard, a pair of officers paid a visit. Satisfied that no actual corpses were implicated, but suspicious of the preparations underway, they gave an informal warning that the evening’s event should not venture into the street. (Trinidad and Tobago’s public safety laws require prior police permission for political demonstrations.) In the strictest sense, 9 of 219’s street procession was illegal. But in a country where police apathy is widely considered a key element of the crime problem, the irony of the prompt arrival of a police truck, lights flashing, was lost on none of the participants.
Nor was the simple but profound symbolism of the procession’s collective effort: literally, the responsibility of the burden. One participant spoke of her body’s reaction to the solid weight of the coffin turning into an emotional response — a physical ache transformed into a sensation of grief and loss. Another remarked: “In carrying the coffins, you brought us into a personal relationship…. By the time we put them down we felt a kind of responsibility.” For others, it was an act of defiance, or a ritual of expiation. We came expecting to be spectators, and found ourselves becoming something else.
And for the artist, perhaps, 9 of 219 was a small turning point. When she arrived in Trinidad, Patterson had already drafted her proposal for her Nettleford Fellowship project. But her experience of 9 of 219 — its open-endedness, the unpredictability of depending on her audience and allowing their agency to give the project its final shape — was “transformative”, she says, for Cheap and Clean.
Patterson has never approached dancehall culture as an outsider. Hers is not the detached gaze that apprehends the citizens of urban Jamaica as subjects for ghetto-cool fantasies or hipster ethnography: Vice-ready images of small children posing with guns, senior citizens with giant spliffs, for the titillation of foreign magazine editors. Her “bling” aesthetic is not ironic appropriation or parody, but a sincere investigation of dancehall street style as an assertion of personal validity. That is the challenge her Gully Godz pose: take me seriously.
9 of 219 ,Performance Night, Participants Carrying Coffins, Port-of-Spain ,Trinidad, 2011 (Image Courtesy of Rodell Warner and Alice Yard)
What was most risky in Cheap and Clean was also what gave the project its potent charge: the unpredictability of the young men Patterson enlisted as collaborators, and the imperative for the artist to negotiate with their own desires and concerns. To allow them to project their ideal selves, to be seen as they wish to be seen: that respect for their agency is no small act in a society where the portrayal of young black men remains politically and ethically fraught.
9 of 219 was recorded by a host of photographers and videographers. The day after the performance, images of nicely attired middle-class men and women carrying their unexpected burden in the streets appeared in the media, and soon afterwards a short documentary was released online. But the truer record of what really happened that evening in Woodbrook is invisible. It is the tremor of emotional or moral comprehension lingering in each participant’s memory. In the same way, the tangible results of Cheap and Clean — the video documentation, this catalogue, the tailored outfits kept by each of the young collaborators — are only byproducts of an experience imagined by Patterson and fulfilled in her exchange with these young men. There are aesthetic, political, and moral aspects to that exchange, and these are not easily summarised. But you could say: she took them seriously.
- Nicholas Laughlin