Questions about the ethics of representation have long complicated Patterson’s practice. For her 2016 exhibition …when they grow up… at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York FIG. 1, she showed photographs of Black children alongside items associated with childhood, such as a dollhouse, teddy bears and balloons. Part of the installation included foam blocks arranged to spell out ‘TAMIR RICE’ – the name of a twelve-year old African American boy shot by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014. Although this was a clear allusion to lost childhood, Patterson did not use images of Rice or other victims, remarking, ‘What would it mean for me to use images of children whose bodies have been degraded, who have not been given the kind of humanity that should have been given to them?’.2 Her new show furthers these concerns about the visual plundering of Black trauma.
In the five-panel work …and the dew cracks the earth, in five acts of lamentation…between the cuts…beneath the leaves…below the soil FIG. 2, branching vines, feathered butterflies and paper flowers – some of which represent poisonous specimens – stand out against a white background. More ‘living wall’ than painting, each panel consists of lush overgrowth that envelops a human presence which slowly becomes apparent: a trio of headless female figures FIG. 3; floating body parts; a disembodied head poking out from a bouquet of peonies; an outstretched hand resting on a fern. These limbs do not imply a group of children hiding in the garden – a light-hearted game of hide-and-seek – so much as a single dismembered child. The viewer feels an urge to fit together the chopped limbs into a coherent body, a mental exercise that is as gruesome as it is futile. Compiling incompatible fragments and persuading the viewer to assemble them is emblematic of Patterson’s approach to representation; she explodes the puzzle instead of solving it.