"Ebony G. Patterson" exhibit
A shot of “Ebony G. Patterson” exhibit, now at the Speed Art Museum | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

Step out of the elevator on the second floor of the Speed Art Museum, and you’ll see a fairly normal sight. One large wall has been transformed into an artfully displayed title written in over-sized letters: “Ebony G. Patterson: … while the dew is still on the roses

But as soon as one turns the corner and walks into the exhibition, one begins to realize the scope of the show — not only in its size but in its beauty and in the immersive aspects of the installation, which includes more than a dozen large-scale mixed media works.

The walls of the entire show are cloaked in handmade cloth wallpaper, another dark shade of blue that reveals a repeated image of flowers in a garden by night. Sprouting from the walls are outgrowths of flora, in some areas strings of blossoms float in the air, suspended by invisible tie line.  

Ebony G. Patterson
Ebony G. Patterson | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

The beauty accentuates the difficult subject ahead, and like the Speed’s “Southern Accents” exhibit, it deals explicitly with our culture’s murder and oppression of people of color.

“… while the dew is still on the roses …,” which opened at the Speed on June 21, originated at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, where Chief Curator Tobias Ostrander originally worked with the artist to curate the show.

But the Speed’s iteration fills the entirety of the museum’s second floor and has a much larger footprint than it did at the Pérez.

The lush, dark hues and flowers are meant to create a garden at night, an idea that began to shape when Patterson was considering what her works meant when placed together, while her conversation with Ostrander gave form to the exhibit. The works span nine years of the artist’s career.

Many of the pieces on display are richly embroidered and adorned tapestries, which can dazzle the eye at a casual glance but challenge the emotions and ideas of the viewer on closer inspection. But the first art viewers encounter is a film installation, which begins the ongoing examination running throughout the show.

A still from “Three Kings Weep” by Ebony G. Patterson | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

In this film — “The Observation: A Fictitious History” — three large screens project a lush triptych of a jungle, and in the central screen, that jungle is inhabited by two figures.

They are clearly people of color but also are cloaked and masked in a way that throws their identity, nature and even genders into question.

“What happens, in the beginning, is that you’re entering an environment and you’re observing,” Patterson explains to Insider. “So again, the audience is being asked to bear witness at bodies that would not be ordinarily given real attention or attention in a way that is not loaded or grounded and stereotypes or fear.” 

After the video installation, the mixed-media works begin to appear, but only after the viewer sees a much simpler creation.

“The earliest work in the show is a drawing on paper,” she says.

That drawing features fabric and plastic adornments, a foreshadowing of what follows.

Starting with that drawing, there is a progression — almost a narrative — the exhibit creates. In the first several pieces, there are human figures, the bodies of black people, but then the bodies disappear, leaving behind images of empty clothes.

The visuals presented appear highly figurative and metaphorical, up to and including the names of many works that contain allusions to apocalyptic portions of the Bible. Additionally, some titles include words with two meanings — and two spellings. One example is “bear/bare,” a combination indicating the dual effects of seeing black bodies has on the women in the black community who must bear witness to the death, and in doing so bare themselves emotionally by witnessing.

“I see myself in relation to, you know, like the long history of painters, and so I’m recording the moment because I think these moments are really important,” says Patterson. “There’s something to be said about history that is not acknowledged. It repeats itself, and we’ve been in repetition mode for a very long time.” 

video installation of "Three Kings Weep"
Still from video installation “Three Kings Weep” by Ebony G. Patterson | Courtesy of Speed Art Museum

The ultimate piece in the exhibition is another video installation, “Three Kings Weep.” Three black men, on screens 20 feet high, each start nude and then dress in fine clothing, while crying.

“They get dressed to Claude McKay’s poem called ‘If We Must Die,'” Patterson says. “It recognizes that death is imminent, it is coming, but if we must die, let us die on our terms.”

The images — and the entirety of “… while the dew is still on the roses …” — demands that viewers grapple with their culpability in those deaths. Beautiful, unsettling and immersive, the exhibition cannot be viewed, it must be experienced.

“Ebony G. Patterson: … while the dew is still on the roses …” remains on display through Jan. 5. The Speed is located at 2035 S. Third St., and admission is free on Sundays.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.