Pittsburgh Center for the Arts: 21st Century Juju

Whether it be through the eyes of a tribal figure dressed in an amalgamation of old knickknacks and trinkets, or through the eyes of a slave named Delia, 21st Century Juju: New Magic, Soul Gadgets and Reckoning is always staring back into you. True to its name, Vanessa German’s solo exhibition seems to fill its gallery space with an otherworldly aura. An artist relatively early in her career, German’s mature multidisciplinary work and her creative contributions to the region made her an excellent choice for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts’ Emerging Artist of the Year Award. 21St Century JuJu holds its own alongside its sister exhibition, Artist of the Year Charlee Brodsky’s Good Dog.

Through mixed media sculpture and installation, German crafts the struggles of black life in America into beautifully haunting and tangible form. The show is a combination of tribal figures of German’s own making and found images and objects – the detritus of the environment she has emerged from. Through them, the magic proclaimed in the exhibition’s title works itself, allowing viewers to observe the layers of the black community’s history, stacked one on top of another. Here, German is a shaman and a storyteller.

The entry space and one hallway of 21st Century Juju are devoted to the icon of a woman named  Delia. It is all but stated that she was a slave. Her visage, lifted from daguerrotypes commissioned by a proponent of scientific racism, is repeatedly screen printed on several antique quilts and American flags. These works are perhaps best embodied by Delia In a Field of Stars, in which Delia covers a heavily draped 48-star flag, which itself covers another more mysterious cloth. The urge to investigate this hidden cloth is subsumed by the realization of its unimportance – Delia, and by extension the impact of institutionalized slavery, sits right in front of our eyes.

Perhaps the more iconic works of the exhibition are the half assemblages, half dolls, figures combining the juju of America of the past two centuries and of Africa long before. In one room, arranged in a circle, they invoke imagery of a ritual dance. Each is perched impossibly atop boxes, end tables, or carefully arranged tchotchkes, lending them a paradoxically imposing fragility. In another room lie a trio that twist on the convention – Red, White, and Blue for short. Housed within them are looping videos of a southern oak, a beach, and a cabin used by Dr. Martin Luther King, respectively. These suggest a journey by German to a particular area of the South, documentation of a reconnection to her American roots parallel to her exploration of African culture.

Every work in 21st Century Juju carries a certain eloquence – a razor wit with a deep spiritual magnetism. The of visual motif lends, appropriately enough, a poetry to the exhibition. As the Emerging Artist of the Year, Vanessa German has been recognized as an artist of promise. This show should leave any viewer excited to witness her future endeavors.

Bibliography

Blight, David. Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. Yale         University Press, 2010.

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