Adam Patterson: barbed beauty | Closeup

For Barbadian artist Adam Patterson, masquerade and performance are mediums for challenging Caribbean stereotypes, writes Shereen Ann Ali

  • Echidna (2016, performance, Speightstown, Barbados). Photo courtesy Adam Patterson
  • Bikkel (2018, performance, London). Commissioned for Jerwood Staging Series, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. Photo by Hydar Dewachi
  • Photo by Hydar Dewachi
  • Photo by Hydar Dewachi
  • Buchibushi, a performance work by Adam Patterson (2018, Oranjestad, Aruba). Photo by Sharelly Emanuelson, courtesy Adam Patterson

What would you do if you saw a strange creature approach you on the street, humanoid in form but with a huge sea urchin for a head, with terrifyingly sharp spikes sticking out in all directions? Would you run for the hills or stand transfixed, wondering if Carnival came early? Would you talk to it, to see if it were alien?

Artist Adam Patterson performed this strange character in his home island of Barbados in 2016, playing a one-man walkabout called Echidna. To Trinidadian eyes, it might have seemed a monster mas, and delightfully so, though it left quite a few Barbadian viewers nonplussed.

Born in Bridgetown, Patterson graduated in 2017 with a degree in fine arts from Central St Martins in London. He’s currently studying for a master’s degree in education in arts at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Consistently exhibiting since 2014, Patterson is quietly passionate about subverting Caribbean stereotypes through his art practice.

Patterson’s works embrace thorny issues of identity. What does it mean to be a Bajan, for example, or to be any Caribbean islander in a world that’s culturally stratified by global players? What’s it like to be a mixed-race person dealing with people who want to pin you down, wriggling against a wall, in black or white terms? And what happens when you throw homosexuality into the mix? Do you accept how others see and define you, or do you resist easy labels, choosing your own path?

Monstrous masquerade forms, queer selfhood, and neocolonial angst and resistance all bubble up in Patterson’s performance works. They take several forms: street theatre performances borrowing from masquerade traditions, experimental, edgy short videos, and expressive writing, often in ruminating poetic essay form — whether as printed text, sound narration, or oratory.

Echidna was created during an informal residency with the art centre Fresh Milk. Patterson says the piece was triggered by his frustration and anger at images of packaged tropical paradises in art shows of the time, what he describes as “the continued celebration of images that others expect of us, that a tourist economy expects of us as people of the Caribbean region.” So he responded with his spiky portrayal. The name was borrowed from a Greek mythological figure who combined beauty with qualities of fearsome monstrosity and power. Like the Greek Echidna, the sea urchin can be beautiful to look at, yet dangerous to touch. This active, threatening form of beauty appealed to Patterson and struck him as more authentic to the Caribbean space than typical metaphors of passive paradise.

Patterson sees the sea urchin’s long, sharp spikes as fantastical forms of self-protection, letting the creature hunker down into its own landscape, drawing sustenance from its own territory as it keeps away outside negative influences, unconcerned by the projections, fears, and concerns of others. The whole idea of being looked at, judged, and interpreted according to somebody else’s desires or needs is something Patterson rejects, and fights against. He expands the meaning of the judgmental, categorising gaze of the “other” to the stereotypical way too many foreigners choose to see and define Caribbean people.

 

Last year, Patterson performed a macabre mas art piece called Mangrove Village in a fellow artist’s studio in Bridgetown. In this performance, he appeared as a ghoulish monster in thick layers of shaggy sargassum seaweed, like some sinister denizen of swamp hell. As he lumbered slowly across the studio space, he uttered a speech bursting with imagery of rot, stasis, and decay, launched with the opening salvo, “They found my body bloated in the mangrove.” But the creature was not totally dead: just paralysed by fear of change, and immobile with the “pride of stagnation-hood.”

The Mangrove Village character borrows costume elements from the Shaggy Bear folk character who accompanies musical tuk bands at Crop Over and Christmas time in Barbados. Shaggy Bear dances in a costume made of long strips of cane trash, banana leaves, or cloth, and he is a jolly, acrobatic, lively character. Patterson’s shaggy sargassum figure, however, is slow and halting, a collective miasmic being in danger of “being broken by the mangrove, if we do not move towards revolt.”

The performance can be read as a call to more active, self-aware, self-confident forms of creating and asserting our collective cultural selves in our own Caribbean spaces, even as it critiques stagnation in too many aspects of island life. The performance speech, Patterson says, was inspired by his reading of novelist George Lamming’s Sovereignty of the Imagination, and issues of decolonisation and freeing the mind were very much part of his creative process.

In yet another Caribbean island, Patterson has performed a quite different work called Buchibushi, part of a 2018 Caribbean Linked arts residency in Aruba. The title, Patterson explains, comes from two Papiamento words: bushi, which is the name for a local cactus, and buchi, an adjective in local parlance conveying hardness and roughness, and which suggested to him a rustic farmer quality. But buchi can also be a derogatory Papiamento term for a homosexual.

Patterson’s Buchibushi is dressed in a cactus-green costume with an oversize, cryptic head formed from a large inverted clay vessel. The vessel is hard on the outside but can contain life-sustaining water within. From its top sprouts a flowering cactus plant — a joyful splash of colour, but with its own armour of spikes. It looks both playful and slightly scary. Buchibushi also has a single large opening on its face — an ambiguous eye or mouth aperture (or “one-eyed monster?”) — through which the performer can see without being seen.

In the performance, this eerie being wanders in from the wilderness of Aruba’s arid hinterlands to place sustaining aloe vera plants in cracks along a public city road. The character is like a peaceful yet supremely detached alien gardener who gently roots good energy through his aloe plants. Children loved it. People began knocking on his clay-pot head (“That sounded very loud on the inside!”), to connect with the character.

 

Depending on the idea, there’s usually a medium that suggests itself,” says Patterson of his creations and performances. “I enjoy working with performance because it offers a lot of space for including text, voice, and the whole creative dimension of costume-making. And I enjoy the theatrical aspect of it, the flexibility of performance.”

Among Patterson’s most recent works is a 2018 performance called Bikkel, created under the auspices of Jerwood Visual Arts in London. The Dutch word bikkel derives from a bone in a sheep’s heel, but the word can also mean a bone used in a dice-like game of chance, or a pickaxe, or it can refer to a very resilient person. In Patterson’s case, he confesses the title came to him from the Dutch brand name of his partner’s bicycle.

Patterson’s Bikkel performance features a character in a striking mask of sculptured cloth spikes which erupt where normally you’d expect to see facial features. The hard spikiness of the sea urchin has here been made softer, more vulnerable, moving away from hard brittleness and associated notions of toxic masculinity to embrace a kind of hipster creature in a hoodie with a casual, camp quality. The body costume, says Patterson, was influenced by London and Rotterdam male fashion silhouettes, borrowed from tracksuits, bomber jackets, and hoodies — clothing that tries to suggest a cool, tough masculinity while also being soft and comfortable to wear.

While performing Bikkel, Patterson played music from a phone in his pocket, including aggressive dancehall tracks by Vybz Kartel (“Real Badman”) and mellower racks by Rupi (“Tempted to Touch”). Patterson was riffing off expectations of masculinity projected by such popular music, while exploring the idea of a vulnerable, more accessible masculinity, more open to feelings.

Part of the inspiration for this performance, he says, came from his reading of American poet, intersectional feminist, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde (1934–1992). “Raising black children — female and male — in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy,” wrote Lorde in her essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist Response”. “If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive.” It made Patterson reflect on the nurturing role of mothers, and the need for love, connection, and alternative models of manhood which do not extol only hardness, violence, and a cauterising of all gentle qualities, in order to be thought of as a man.

As Lorde once famously said, “those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference . . . know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”