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Artist Shares Serious Message Beneath The Bling

A new exhibition of art at the University Galleries in Uptown Normal is actually more than just art. It's a blinged-out protest against violence and injustice.

"they were..." is the name of the eye-popping show by Ebony G. Patterson. Dominating the gallery space is one collection in particular, featuring 50 coffins up on poles, each one colorfully decorated in splashy fabrics, sparkling rhinestones, fabric flowers and more. Across from the coffins is a trio of video screens depicting a Carnival parade in Kingston, Jamaica—an event that featured the coffins as a demonstration of guerrilla art. 

Line of coffin sculptures.
Credit University Galleries
This is only the third time Patterson's sculptures have been shown together. Their size dictates a need for significant gallery space.

Patterson's work uses color and sparkle to address the subjects of violence and socioeconomic divides, according to Kendra Paitz, the head curator of the University Galleries.

"She uses this really opulent material, vivid colors and shiny objects to really draw you in. But then as you start reading about them and looking at them more closely, you realize there's something much deeper and darker underlying all of it."

This is only the third time the coffin sculptures have been brought together, said Paitz. Most notably, they were used in the Carnival parade in an effort to call attention to violence in Kingston. The collection is known as "Invisible Presence: Bling Memories" and was created by Patterson along with the help of art students in Jamaica with the intent to infiltrate a Carnival procession.

"Ebony was thinking about the history of protests and its presence in other Carnival traditions," said Paitz. "The Carnival celebration in Jamaica is very commercial and very exclusive. The permits and the costumes are incredibly expensive. So she has made some works related to a violent occurrence in a Kingston neighborhood where a large number of civilians were killed. Thinking about how those people were not remembered or commemorated, Ebony created this work."

"These coffins serve a lot of purposes. Thinking about violence, thinking about who people really are. Aesthetically, they're rooted in the bling funeral, where people from working-class neighborhoods will plan elaborate funerals. So Ebony worked with the students to create these sculptures and they did a performance where they marched with them behind the main Carnival procession. They even had their own band playing traditional funerary songs."

There's a long history of artists as initiators of protest, explained Paitz.

"This is something that can reach people on a different level than just about anything else." 

Ebony G. Patterson's work is on display at the University Galleries through April 1.

Hear bonus audio from Kendra Paitz about more work by Ebony G. Patterson.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.