The Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson followed the events as they happened just a few miles away from her home. She tuned in to local radio, where women holed up in their besieged homes called in and wept, describing how their husbands, brothers, and sons were being dragged from their homes and beaten, disappeared, or killed in front of them.
It was May 2010. Jamaican military and police forces, backed by the US government, entered an area of Kingston called Tivoli Gardens and slaughtered so many civilians that nobody has been able to figure out the exact number. Five years later, no one has been held accountable, no official list of who died has been released, and no official memorial has been constructed.
For almost two years, Patterson worked on her own memorial to the events. It's made out of sparkling, candy-colored, hand-embellished bandannas hanging on laundry lines. They're attached by little pink clothespins, rows and rows of them, like segments of a quilt waiting to be assembled, each one a mandala of colors and patterns with the digital print of a black-and-white photograph of someone's face in the center.
Only the eyes look out. The noses and mouths and chins are covered by bandannas the artist added. With each person so veiled, and so many people in all, the squares risk becoming a featureless mass. But those eyes.
What you won't find out from the wall text at Seattle Art Museum is that these are not photographs of the people who died, because Patterson doesn't know the names of the people who died, or even the correct number of people who died—which is one reason the work is titled Of 72, but if you count the individual squares, you will find there are 73.
In a sense, this is a Black Lives Matter piece. So much of the artist's work, she told me, has to do "with ideas about stereotyping" and looking "within a black context. What does it mean to be black and male—what is that stereotype? That stereotype is often associated with a criminal. So what I did was, I went to criminal databases and I just started collecting these images. These are public databases that anyone could have access to. And then I started obscuring these images, and a part of the reason I was obscuring them was because these people are invisible. No one knows who they are. No one knows what they look like in truth. No one knows anything about them."
It is not a laundry line or a future quilt, or even a ritual that's ever taken place. This is a homemade tomb of unknowns, a makeshift grave site that not only doesn't name names, but that also doesn't spell out how many bodies piled up.
It was first displayed in 2012, in an empty lot adjoining the suburban Jamaican backyard of writer Annie Paul. Now it's on exhibit at Seattle Art Museum, in a room painted purple. Patterson, the artist, is giving a talk at SAM on August 26.
I've visited these 73 people four times, and I probably will visit them again. Some of them have become familiar. There's the man who raises his eyebrows wide, like he's so surprised that any of this is happening, like his unseen arms are raised up high and he is calling out, "Don't shoot!" He is easy to imagine as part of that terrible week in Tivoli Gardens in May 2010, when the Jamaican government declared a state of emergency and an American surveillance plane circled overhead as men with guns collected and killed other men, all in the name of extraditing a drug lord who wasn't even in that location at that time. Some of the unidentified bodies sat out there for days, rotting. They later were stuffed in heaps under mounds of ground not far from where they died.
The last time I went to see Of 72, the art museum was officially closed, and my escort didn't know how to turn the lights on. So for the first few minutes before security arrived, we examined the art using only the flashlights on our phones, as if we were archaeologists in a cave. I started at the label on the wall written by the artist and intended as part of the work. It's a list of questions.
"What happens when 73 die and no one knows who they are?"
"What did they like to eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner?"
"What did their voices sound like?"
"Where were they when they died? Who was with them? Were they alone?"
In the darkness, I flitted with my phone from portrait to portrait. So many. They were all equally important and equally anonymous, all equally lost. What actually happened to each of them? What kind of portraiture is this—a portraiture in perpetual half-light?
I interviewed Patterson to find out more.
Let's start with the actual events. Were you in Jamaica when Prime Minister Bruce Golding announced he would comply with the American request to extradite Christopher Coke? Were you there when the government implemented its state of emergency and executed the raid?
I was in Jamaica during the time that it all unfolded, from the very beginning of the incursion to the very end. Now there has been a commission of enquiry. I'm always in Jamaica... So I guess my interest in what happened during the incursion had a lot to do with me being a concerned citizen, and also, I guess, the other thing that had interested me is because at the time, so much of my work was on discussions around masculinity and popular culture. And we had this situation unfolding where clearly young men, or men, were being targeted in our community, and in our working-class community, and also... there's a side of the economic and gang-related politics that's quite synonymous with a lot of urban inner-city spaces here. We call them garrisons.
[Tivoli Gardens] was a really important center where popular culture was concerned, because they had a street party called Passa Passa. Major entertainers would go and perform. People from Jamaica and people from other parts of the world would make a pilgrimage. New dance moves would be debuted at Passa Passa, then those would become part of the wider dancehall culture. A little economy developed around the dance. The dance went on from the late hours on Wednesday to the early hours past daybreak on Thursday, so a lot of the community would find ways of making revenue there, like selling produce or things that you would typically find at a street dance. It created economic opportunities.
Is the dance still going on? How is Tivoli seen?
No. So the dance—no one will go down [there] anymore.
A garrison is essentially a community that has a political allegiance. This community was politically aligned, and there needed to be some kind of accountability on the part of the government in terms of turning over this person who was being requested by the US government. There were a lot of delays in the handing over, in the attempt to deal with extradition on the part of the party who was in power—because it was this person who was essentially running Tivoli. But what concerned me is certainly not about Coke, right?
What concerned me was the handling of citizens during this incursion, and during the state of emergency when the country was under martial law. I mean, I remember listening to the radio and people from the community were calling in quite often. It was women who would call in to talk shows crying, that they were being attacked and brutalized by police officers or soldiers. They were complaining that their sons or their boyfriends or their husbands were drawn out of houses never to be seen again, and this was the general handling of citizens that worried me considerably.
And the response from people in other communities outside Tivoli, from middle-class and upper-class communities, their response to people who come from spaces like Tivoli, working-class communities, is "You're criminals." If you come from a working-class community and you're male, and of course it's a predominantly black country, but so much of our socioeconomic politics is still connected to colorism. So being lighter in shade, it would be assumed you come from a better social and financial background.
So the way that young black men from inner-city or working-class communities, the way that they are seen by the larger public is that they're always under suspicion. They're seen as criminals, and they are often subject to assault by police just walking down the road.
It's the same thing that happens in the United States.
What I find interesting is these police officers come from these very same circumstances. What does it mean to have this self-hate, hate for your own? To the point where you don't even see these people who come from the very same places as you.
Also, what we are most well-known for as a country is our culture, our music, and also through sport. The people who give us global identity are not upper-class suburban people, they are working-class people. What does it mean to undervalue the very people who give you such visibility, and on this scale?
I remember there was one story picked up by an international paper—and at this time, the local paper wasn't carrying stories like this but it was appearing in the international papers—this woman talking about her two sons. They told her that her sons had to come out [of the house], and she pleaded with them, saying they were not involved in anything and saying they don't know Coke. She's pleading and they go down the street, she hears two gunshots, and they never return.
How many people were killed?
In the initial toll of how many people were killed, they said it was 10 Tivoli civilians and one soldier. Then, there were 73 civilians who were killed, 72 of those were men and only one was a woman. Based on those numbers, it was very clear who was targeted.
Is there an official number of dead? In the New Yorker, Mattathias Schwartz wrote, "No fewer than 74 people were killed." Obviously that leaves room that there may have been more than 74.
There was an interim report done by the public defender, which is what led to the enquiry. The public defender is an actual government office, an office within the government, so that person is not elected by the people but appointed by the ruling party at the time.
So they actually set up an office in the community and took reports, and I think they were in the community for quite some time and then made a detailed interim report based on the conversations they had with witnesses.
Some people to this day have yet to be found or to be located. There was also damage to personal property. I think something like 96 homes were totally destroyed. Based on the information they had collected, they believe that at least 150 people were killed.
An independent news agency—it's probably the only investigative journalism or the best investigative journalism around the incidents—they're the only ones who have gone ahead and published, I think, 56 of the names of the people killed during the incursion and included photographs, ages of the people, names of the people, and children that they had. The government has not done that. It's the television show 18 Degrees North. They did the report on the fifth anniversary. They do a lot of regional coverage.
Tell me about the one woman in the piece.
When you look at the piece, even in your attempt to try to figure out who is the female, [you can't]. When people ask me who is the female, and I turn it back on them, they always choose a male—and that then again comes back to the way we read or understand gender. My work is interested in how people will use those very same elements to create a sense of invisibility. You're here, but you cannot be seen.
And the bandannas?
The bandanna has always been a motif associated with the bad-boy image—if we think about cowboy culture, or if we think about gang culture in the US, where there's a kind of color-coding that's used. But also, too, I remember I think it was the BBC who had done an interview with a number of men who had come in to defend Coke, the people who were, like, Coke's soldiers. They had done interviews with them, and all of them had obscured their faces with either a T-shirt or a bandanna, so that image has always remained with me as a powerful motif or insignia to use.
Were people warned the raid was coming?
There was a moment several hours before [the raid] when police and soldiers both had encouraged people from Tivoli to leave Tivoli, told them to go and take refuge elsewhere. That also makes it very clear how dangerous it was going to get and the kind of warfare that was going to happen. But then again, why should you have to leave your own home? I can't imagine the security forces going to an upscale community in Kingston to look for a don. And many of these dons, when [they] get to a certain stamp of financial power, they live outside of these communities, not in them. Their office may be there. That was the case with Coke. He lived in an uptown suburb. He was [in Tivoli] on the day of the incursion for a while, but it's believed he had exited the community before the security forces had come in.
So the idea that you should leave your community is so absurd. There should have been a better way for the security forces to handle the situation without needing to get to this level of violence. Nothing of this scale has happened before, so I wanted to make a massive work in a way that somebody would have to encounter 73 bodies, each individual. And that's why they are individualized, so no one bandanna or object is the same. The text [in the form of the list of questions on the wall label] is also used to humanize these people who, in many ways, are still invisible five years later.
I can't believe the victims are still unnamed. I guess at least 18 Degrees North has done some of the work.
18 Degrees North is a private entity, and I think it's not the job of a private entity to identify the citizens who have been killed by the state. It's the state's responsibility even just to name these people. Even just to call their names out.
No accountability is going to happen. And so coming back to this idea about, if your absence is not held accountable for, whether you are missing or you are dead, how do 73 people not exist? That's really dangerous. A lot of our citizens are dismissing it because these are inner-city people. The enquiry is happening so that it could be said that it was done. And the public outrage that really should be coming up based on these discussions, it's totally absent. It's just them, and you know how all of them are. But these people are citizens, and if the state can treat citizens like this, it doesn't matter where you are from, you best believe that the same thing can meet you at your door. It's just frightening. It's just frightening.
Where has this piece shown?
Initially, I really wanted it to be shown at home first. We don't have very many galleries here—we really don't have any galleries here—but I was approached by a major person at the National Gallery of Jamaica to do the project, and this was probably around 2011, after the incident had happened. The problem, again, of course, with national agencies, is that they're all politically aligned. And so while people could see the benefit or the significance of the project, there were fears around the project because of political concerns they had. Just things that should not even be part of the dialogue in an art context, as far as I'm concerned. [The National Gallery did not respond to The Stranger's request for comment.]
So I had a pop-up show—I did it in somebody's yard first, a writer. I did it, I guess, in what would be considered a suburban space. I thought that was a perfect way of raising the problem, the issue that these people are invisible. So that's the first and only place I've ever shown it at home.
If the government puts out an official list of names of the civilians killed at Tivoli, how do you think will that change Of 72, if at all? Are the names something you would want to add to the project?
I collected all the images that I have seen on 18 Degrees North, all the pictures they shared on television. I photographed and shared that information on social media. But I have been asked that: "Do you need to now make new images given that some identities have been revealed?" And my response is no.
Of course it shifts the work. But the work raises a bigger question around the way that, generally, people from places like Tivoli are seen as valueless, not important. To obscure people simply on the premise of their socioeconomic location anchors into something even larger than just Tivoli.
What do you think is the power in having the dead named by the state?
I mean, I think when I made that work, I felt like it was an important moment that needed to be documented. The importance of the state, on the other hand, naming these names just has to do with the state's responsibility to the citizens. These people weren't killed by some random madmen. They were people hired by the state. And if the state is truly invested in finding out what has happened, what were the circumstances in which these individuals died, then it is important for you to acknowledge the presence that was once here, or to recognize the absence of those people. And the way you can do that is to name them. Because to only refer to them as the 73 or the 75 or whatever number they're using, to only reference them as that is to bundle them all up as a unit. It's not to recognize that this is John Brown, and he had two kids, and he had these people who loved him. To call someone's name is to call them into being. And also to signal to the larger public, too, that these people mattered. That they individually mattered. That they mattered. Whether they lived for two minutes or 20 years, every person has an impact on somebody.
You talked about the way black men are stereotyped. There are similarities between the United States and Jamaica. What do you think the differences are?
In America, there's a bubbling over. We have this sense of who these people are. The fact that a case goes all the way to trial and there have actually been incidences when people have been held accountable, they've been charged and prosecuted and served time in jail—I mean, here? It's, you know, um, there's some things that I am shocked by that are playing out in the US, but these discussions and the involvement that's happening around it—that is so much more active than what happens here. So many people are just so disconnected from it all. It's refreshing to me to see that there's still public outcry when injustices happen, and people are actively concerned or not concerned. But here, we're numb. We're numb and we don't care, and that, to me, is frightening.
The most complete account of the 2010 attack on Tivoli Gardens was written in 2011 by Mattathias Schwartz for the New Yorker, in a story called "A Massacre in Jamaica." I interviewed Schwartz as well. To read that interview, go here.