American flags and quilts set the tone for an exhibition that explores the artist’s heritage, and forces a reckoning with history. The recurring motif of a bare breasted black woman is printed on them, embedded in the country’s history. Delia in a Field of Stars becomes a slave-spangled banner . It’s covering a darker cloth, suggesting that it’s hiding an iniquitous part of history. We are afraid to touch the flag to get a better view – it feels like we are forbidden to; but do we want to see anyway? Vanessa German’s multimedia sculptures fill the entire first floor of the Pittsburgh Center of the Arts for her exhibition for winning the Emerging Artist of the Year Award. Being a poet, actress, designer, and photographer, German certainly doesn’t limit her self-expression to any single medium.
The adjacent rooms hold visually complex sculptures that require more careful attention. German masters assemblage, weaving narratives from the stories of each found object. They resemble nkisi, tribal fetishes (primarily from the Congo basin) that are inhabited by spirits and awakened by driving in sharp objects; each nail was thought to protect, heal, keep an oath, or the opposite – to curse or strike one with a disease. German’s figurines are laden with history, made immobile by what adorns them; each key, plug, watch, whistle, comb and piece of jewelry represents a happening. Clearly the sculptures are charged with symbolism, however the meaning becomes irrelevant and allows the individual to offer his/her own experience and significance to the sculpture.
Any aloof visitor might overlook the figures, not noticing that they are in fact fair skinned dolls reconstructed and altered with plaster by the artist, facial features moulded to fit the African American stereotype. An image in Littlest Rebel is particularly striking: a young Shirley Temple’s skin and hair is scribbled over in black; she now has an afro. German paints over condescending mentalities and portrayals of African Americans in popular culture, reinventing societal views similarly to Betye Saar’s use of Aunt Jemima in the Black Arts movement in the 70s.
The healing aspect of the power figures is most strongly portrayed in It’s Out of My Hands; seven arms protrude from its head, palms exposed, eyes closed in resignation. At its feet a box holds small magnifying glasses labelled with all the problems and fears shed, from a brain aneurysm to just a wrong decision. German gives sculptures a practical use spiritually, not only to be observed from afar. Traditionally, nkisi have a compartment in the belly holds medicinal substances; but in, Red, White, Blue, the cavities hold footage of a serene wooden house, the seaside, and trees swaying in the wind. Whether these things disburden her from fears or just comfort her, it shows that these sculptures don’t solely concern the empowerment of a race that struggled through one of the worst episodes of American history, but also her own personal struggles and ways to deal with them.