Dying is big business. In the United States, the average cost of a funeral is nearing $20,000 according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and in the Caribbean, spending $30,000 or more on the last hurrah is not unusual. In Jamaica, an extravagant funeral is known as a “bling funeral” — a lavish, dancehall evoking ceremony that many poor Jamaicans plan for several years to turn heads toward their otherwise unseen lives. Artist Ebony G. Patterson, whose exhibit Invisible Presence: Bling Memories is on display at the Atlanta Contemporary through April 17, created 50 gaudy coffins to bring awareness to this practice where funerals serve as a form of redemption from poverty.
On April 17, 2014, Patterson assembled 50 people in order to march down the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, carrying colorful, ornate coffin-shaped structures with wooden rods at the bottom, during the island’s 26th annual Carnival mass. The artist described the procession as “an artistic project aimed at validating a practice that comes from communities that are deemed ‘valueless,’ because of their location physically and socioeconomically” in a Facebook event post. Twenty of the chromatic coffins that Patterson created for the parade are on display in the exhibit.
The coffins are about 15-feet tall and lined up in five rows, creating the effect of being surrounded by trees in a dense forest. The rods and bases used to hold them are painted aquamarine. Each is different, just like the lives they would contain. Patterson uses a variety of materials to decorate the coffins: curtain tassels, mesh, velvet and fish-patterned fabric. One coffin features black floral leather fabric wrapped around three of its sides with rhinestones in the center of the flowers. A different fabric with pink and blue flowers on it covers the fourth side and a gold chain encircles the entire coffin with green and red feathers hanging from the links. Another coffin resembles a figure in a dress with a crème bodice accented by black and gold buttons and a black, copper and pink metallic skirt in the front. The other three sides are adorned with the daffodil patterned fabric and have black tassels hanging from the bottom.
Invisible Presence: Bling Memories was originally created as a performance piece as a part of the EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, curated by Krista Thompson and Claire Tancons and organized by Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. In the multi-site performance series, artists from all around the Caribbean created mixed-media, video and photo events about Carnival celebrations, and the performance piece is definitely missing from this current exhibit. In this version of the exhibit, it would have been nice to see photos and video clips from the actual procession to have a frame of reference for why the coffins had such a great effect during Carnival. There is almost no information in the exhibit about the significance of bling funerals, so anyone who is unfamiliar with the tradition or has not done outside research misses the point.
In a crowded street parade, the coffins are like a moving rainbow, but it is impossible to see the details of each one, which is the advantage of viewing them in a gallery, but that is not enough. The display pales in comparison to seeing the works in the context of Carnival. The spirit behind the coffins is essential to experiencing the art. There is no doubt that the coffins are art that demands to be seen in themselves with their colorful fabrics, tassels, rhinestones and flowers, but inside of the gallery walls they appear to be out of context. The experience is like seeing fully dressed department store mannequins that have not been put together.
However, that does not take away from understanding the artist’s intention in positioning bling funerals as the ultimate intersection of hip-hop culture, ritual and class. The word bling dates back at least 50 years, and it typically refers to the sound of light hitting something that sparkles, such as diamonds. But, the term became a part of the vernacular in the late 1990s as a result of the Cash Money Millionaires’ rap song “Bling Bling”:
“Bling bling / Everytime I come around yo city / Bling bling /Pinky ring worth about fifty
Bling bling / Everytime I buy a new ride / Bling bling / Lorinzos on Yokahama tires
Now, everyone from housewives to kids on the playground, from New Orleans to Kingston, describes sparkly gaudy objects as bling. In the case of bling funerals, the deceased is on display, not just inside of a wooden open casket in a church, but inside of a work of art, that is often adorned with gold, logos of luxury brands such as Gucci and sometimes murals.
In the Bible, the Book of Matthew says that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Bling funerals serve as a way for the poor to have honor in death, even if they could not achieve it in life. Patterson illuminates a practice of the voiceless through Invisible Presence, but seeing the coffin structures outside of a parade does not allow for the lasting impression that the bling funeral is intended to leave.