In May, on my way home from Havana, I ran into Ebony Patterson at the airport. She was one of the international artists invited to exhibit in the Havana Biennial. And the only Jamaican! On Saturday afternoon, I had happily wandered around Old Havana with my sister, Donnette, and our friend, Ifeona, trying to find Ebony’s three installations.
We managed to track down one of them. It was a typically complex image, both alarming and strangely beautiful: A mutilated male body lying in a bed of flowers. Dread reality transformed by the artist into a seemingly pretty picture. The body was carefully camouflaged, dressed in flowers that blended with the background. The underwear was visible, bearing the K-Mart/Sears brand, Joe Boxer.
This is how the brand is described on its website: “Joe Boxer was founded in 1985, with the very simple idea of taking the most basic elements in men’s clothing and remaking it to reflect humour, fashion and popular trends. Because the product is based around the idea of having fun, it gives consumers a chance to identify with, and be a part of the brand.”
Ebony takes all the fun out of Joe Boxer. On the waistband of the underwear, she subversively inserts the word ‘Joeker’ between the repeated brand name. The joke is quite serious. Ebony explained that the work is one of a series focusing on murder, masculinity and consumerism. There are signs of other trendy accessories: fashionable sunglasses and mismatched shoes.
I don’t suppose the owners of the Joe Boxer brand would be too pleased with Ebony’s deadly refashioning of the product line. But they can’t determine exactly how consumers “identify with” their brand. Artistic licence permits Ebony to turn Joe Boxer into a vulnerable male model for so many youth who end up dead, just trying to have some sort of fun.
WHOSE IDEA AND EXPERIENCE?
The theme of this year’s Havana Biennial is ‘Between the Idea and the Experience’. And the curators took the decision to move some of the art out of conventional exhibition spaces into the street. They wanted people to experience art as they were going about their everyday business. Along the busy Malecon, the seawall that protects Havana, installations kept popping up.
Right outside our hotel there was a grouping of beautiful rocking chairs, titled ‘Balance Cubano’. But some of the chairs were joined in such a way that you couldn’t actually sit in them. As the artist, Inti Hernandez, put it in the exhibition guide, “Furniture that could very well comfort a person and interact with the surrounding community becomes a rigid and unpleasant object.”
I must confess I thought the installation a waste of perfectly functional furniture. But Hernandez, who lives and works between Cuba and the Netherlands, wanted to make an intriguing point about a society in transition: “I dedicate these works to Cuba and its present interesting situation, aware of the many opportunities and yet also faced with challenges.”
One of Ebony’s pieces was installed on the Malecon. On Sunday morning, when she went to photograph it, she was amused to see that it had disappeared. She did admit that when she was installing it she had overheard some entertaining reviews from onlookers. They said the work would make excellent bedspreads and curtains. Not the design; the actual object! They, obviously, didn’t see the dead body. Only the flowers.
The curators’ rather ambitious concept of the biennial seems to be a far cry from the basic needs of ordinary Cubans. There appears to be a big gap between the curators’ ‘idea’ and the people’s ‘experience’. Art taken out of the ‘protected’ space of the gallery and put on the street for mass consumption assumes new functions.
THE ART OF DEAD BODIES
So it looks as if somebody decided that Ebony’s installation, like those rocking chairs, was a waste of useful material and simply repurposed it. And that’s why the installation disappeared. The fate of Ebony’s artwork made me think about the value and cost of art in societies like ours where people are literally dying of hunger. How do we justify the seeming excess that is art? Does public art, for example, make the life of the poor more bearable? Or is it a luxury we simply cannot afford?
In countries with erratic governance structures, ‘disappearance’ is often a destabilising fact of life. Just think of those 43 male students in Mexico who disappeared last September on their way to protest at a conference put on by the wife of the mayor of Iguala. Disappearance is often a code word for murder, plain and simple. The victim is abducted, often tortured, then killed and the body disposed of so there is no evidence.
The disappearance of art is clearly not comparable. Quite the contrary! Unlike so many human beings, the disappeared object is certainly not violated. It is preserved because it is highly valued. So somebody, somewhere in Havana, is enjoying Ebony’s public installation in private. Perhaps, it hasn’t been turned into home furnishings. It may have been captured by a collector who knows that it’s really ‘art’, meant for a wall.
I suppose we won’t ever know the fate of Ebony’s installation. We can only be philosophical about its disappearance. Ebony’s startling artwork about dead bodies ends up like a corpse in an unmarked grave. That’s the terrifying appeal of Jamaican culture.