Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Emerging Artist of the Year Vanessa German, August 10-October 28, 2012

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.


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

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African-American German Juju

The art of 2012 Emerging Artist of the Year, Vanessa German, draws great inspiration and power from both African and African American roots. The exhibit at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 21st Century Juju, displays powerful patriotism with American flags as a prominent image, as well as the colors of red, white, and blue. The entrance is an empty room displaying only hanging items on the walls. Three American flags can be seen, two of which being the 48 star flag, the nation’s longest lasting flag to date, being flown from 1912 until 1959, each with Warhol-esque reproduced images of an African woman German calls Delia silkscreened onto different parts of the flag. The use of older flags reminds the viewer of America’s deep history with the African American, who’s immigration was not by choice. None of the pieces’ titles directly refer to the flag in any way, all of which begin with Delia, followed by a brief description (the most referential being Delia In a Field of Stars). Slavery remains a prominent topic throughout. Hung in the hall nearby is Delia; quarters, quarters, nickels, nickels, which consists of empty bags that read “U.S. Mint”, a currency coin type, and the dollar amount that the bag could hold. Delia appears on these bags as well, with the dollar amounts purposefully placed across the chest or face of prints, quite literally putting a price on her head.

Beyond the American Flag and its colors, other common thematic icons include birds, clocks, mirrors, and nails. A clear call back to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, many of the birds of freedom are placed in boxes or cages. The figurines she’s crafted are plastered black, with gold portions painted throughout. Older bronze statues show sign of age by wearing gold where individuals have frequently touched; her golden highlights represent that same idea. Often, birds and hands in her sculptures will be golden. German’s use of seashells to form the lips of the statues helps to perpetuate stereotypes of large lips quite well as well. Stereotypes are further embraced in her figurines, with titles such as Fuck Alla Y’all Mothafuckas, Watermelon Madonna, and Pistol Un-whipped. Her sculptures are intricate, using a scrapyard collection of keys, mirrors, light bulbs, ships, jewelry, and other trinkets. The imagery presented often contrasts the figurines cast in black, with European white porcelain dolls being used throughout.

The use of nails refers to Nkondi, meaning hunter, which were religious statues that were envoked to help, heal, or hunt wrong doers or witches from the Kongo people of West Central Africa. The impaling nails were thought to enrage or awaken the Nkondi into accomplishing the task at hand. The clocks used most likely act a reminder of the time in slavery and how far African Americans have come since those times. Her use of mirrors allows the user to temporarily become a part of each piece, reflecting on America’s dark past.

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Vanessa German

Occupying several rooms on the bottom floor of the Pittsburgh Center for the Art, the center’s Emerging Artist of the Year exhibition features work by Vanessa German, Pittsburgh native and multidisciplinary artist. The show demonstrates Vanessa’s longstanding preoccupation with African-American culture and identity, as evidenced by the African-inspired statues and American flag iconography. The artist’s experience as a poet – she has competed in several poetry slam competitions, and originally trained as a performance artist – surfaces throughout the exhibit in unexpected ways. While the show itself includes little to no text, iconography that appears again and again in her pieces eventually assumes its own language, with a vague and yet affecting narrative developing as the viewer progresses through the gallery. Vanessa has only recently begun to receive recognition as a multi-media artist, but, with her status as Pittsburgh’s Emerging Artist of the Year, the well-deserved recognition of her talents will hopefully accelerate.

Upon wandering into the gallery itself, the viewer encounters a rather vacant room, with three walls sparsely adorned with American flags. These are no ordinary flags, however – the artist has overlaid each with what appears to be an African slave. The room also includes one piece blatantly distinct from the rest: a multimedia sculpture hanging on the wall like an antique clock, with various elements, including a bird in a glass case, a statuette reminiscent of Aunt Jemima, and a tiny watch. Here the artist symbolically introduces many of the ideas she will return to throughout the show; namely, freedom, African American identity in the face of white comodification, and the time at which the Black Community will be independent from the defining forces of white society and free to craft their own identity.

The next room elaborates on these themes, featuring several waist-high “dolls” decorated with a variety of materials and placed on tables. These pieces are effective, but the true stars are three statues arranged in a row, facing three chairs. Small video screens are carved out of the chests of these statues, playing short clips of scenic, silent imagery on a loop. The contrast between the static figures and the kinetic, haunting landscapes evokes strong feelings of wistfulness from the viewers, and serves to remind one that another’s true self may be drastically different from his or her artificially constructed self. And while the next room continues these themes, comprising a dozen or more dolls arrayed in a circle, facing out – the final room represents the true culmination of the show.

The last area doubles as a bedroom, but no ordinary one. Imagery found earlier in the show appears here too, but in a domestic setting. A dozen or so severed doll heads – painted white – lie scattered atop a bed. This startling image perhaps implies, as also indicated by the lack of any time keeping device, that, while the African-American community may have won some semblance of “white” comfort, it has become disconnected from its heritage. Whatever the case, Vanessa German weaves a compelling and exciting “language” – a language, it would seem, all her own.


“2012 Emerging Artist of the Year.” Pittsburgh Filmmakers / Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. http://pittsburgharts.org/2012-emerging-artist-year.

“Vanessa German.” Dreams of Hope. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. http://www.dreamsofhope.org/artist/vanessa-german.

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Looking Inward: Vanessa German’s “21st Century JuJu: Soul Gadgets and Reckoning ”  at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

The most powerful stories are those that are able to turn a personal narrative into a work that encompasses something larger than the individual. Winner of PCA’s ‘Emerging Artist of the Year Award’, Vanessa German creates a narrative that transcends her initial motivation- a need for personal introspection- and becomes a compelling journey to come to terms with one’s own sense of self.

Upon entering the exhibit, German explores one facet of this struggle for identity through her juxtaposition of American flags and the printed image of a topless black woman.  German gives no reference to the source of this woman other than bequeathing her a name, ‘Delia’, through the titles of each work.  ‘Delia’ brings to my mind Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, Sweat, whose protagonist must struggle past the obstacles that face her both as an African American and as a woman.  Delia Dancing the White Rows depicts the woman’s torso repeated across each white stripe of the flag, so that she almost appears to be part of the design of the flag itself.  In this way, German’s flags subversively integrates the black, female form with a traditional image of patriotism, illustrating the tension between her identity and America’s racist past.

German’s identity as a spoken word poet is evident through the titles of her work, which function in much the same way that poem titles function by adding another layer of meaning to each piece.  What appears to be a decorative chestplate, adorned with everyday household items as well as a small ‘Mammy’ figurine becomes imbued with power through its title: What to Wear to Work When The Boss is Breathing Down Your Neck.

             This method of harnessing power is repeated in the dolls that populate German’s exhibit.  All female, they emphasize the struggle around German’s identity as an African American woman.  Dark with eerie white teeth fashioned from seashells, German constructed them to appear antiquated. They teeter precariously at eye level, on pedestals of broken furniture.  Though the dolls themselves are heavy with references to the protective purpose of traditional Congo Nkisi medicine dolls, their clothes carry even more referential weight: their skirts and dresses are fashioned from a variety of household items.  Although the plethora of detail is at first overwhelming, the viewer begins to recognize patterns in German’s visual language.  She repeats certain symbols, such as golden birds pictured inside several doll’s chests, clocks, and the ‘Mammy’ figurine.   German pieces together her characters like the assemblages they inhabit, mixing references to race issues in American history with her personal lexicon of symbols.  Rather than letting the conflict over all of these multiple histories overwhelm her, German harnesses them as power, fashioning them into the clothes and bodies of her idols, symbolically giving her power over them and her own identity.

“21st Century JuJu” is a compelling and original narrative of personal struggles and the search for identity, and a very promising exhibit from a young artist.  Though ‘emerging’, German is in her element as she navigates her own conflicts and sense of self.


German, Vanessa. “21st Century Juju – About 21st Century JuJu.” 21st Century Juju – About 21st Century JuJu. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2012. <http://21stcenturyjuju.com/about&gt;.

Hurston, Zora Neale., and Cheryl A. Wall. Sweat. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997. Print.

“Public Programs Calendar | Museum of the African Diaspora.” Public Programs Calendar | Museum of the African Diaspora. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. http://www.moadsf.org/visit/calendar.html?month=5.

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Pittsburgh Center for the Arts: Vanessa German

If Vanessa German’s hands were anything other than hands, they would be shooting stars. A poet who shapes the texture and flavor of words, both spoken and visual, German’s fingers are spread between sculpture, painting, photography, performance and community-engaged art. Her show 21st Century JuJu: New Magic, Soul Gadgets and Reckoning at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is an impressive showcase of a driven artist who, since her nomination two years ago, has emerged with a powerful voice and aesthetic vocabulary that is luminescent like the stars she describes in her poetry.

In the entrance to the exhibition, flags and quilts are stretched like skins, pinned back with mismatched nails. Worn and wrinkled, the fabric imposes artificial folds on the skin of the black woman in the aged photographic decals, whose clothes have been folded down to her waist to expose her to the gaze of the photographer. She resides on those flags, and also on worn quilts and coin bags, her piercing gaze taking charge of these symbols of home, country, and economy. Testament to German’s ability to edit, these works are direct and eloquent, only revealing their nuances with close inspection.

In the second room there stands a trio of totemic female dolls, stained in red, white and blue. Each doll’s core is a video screen, showcasing a scene: Red: 600 Year Old Oak Tree, White: Water at the Shores, and Blue: Cabin where Dr. King wrote the I Have A Dream Speech.

The viewer is acutely aware of her hand in the film as she makes this pilgrimage. The image quivers with the meter of her step, and we can see her subtly reflected in the glass of the Cabin where Dr. King wrote the I have a Dream speech. Simple and poetic, the artist’s touch is unapologetically present. She creates something that is ancient and brand new simultaneously.

German marries the world of African folk art and Americana in a way that celebrates the fissures and cracks, accentuating the layers. She describes each piece as a story, with small elements as words that build into sentences and paragraphs. German’s figure sculptures and installation speak to the tradition of assemblage, however, her visual poetry has its very own dictionary. Keys, nails, shells, flags, birds, hands and mirrors are rhythmically repeated throughout the exhibit. There is a tense balance between passivity and aggression, which is exemplified in Fuck Alla Y’all Mothafuckas. Aged to remove it from the contemporary, a female figure cradles a child with the words of the piece’s title scrawled in commanding scarlet around her head like a halo.

German has established a powerful presence since her nomination for the emerging artist award. Exhibitions and performances across the United States and abroad are testament to her impassioned body of work that is constantly growing. She speaks to her audience with her own unique library of visual fingerprints, creating her own rules and breaking them when the story requires it.

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Vanessa German, Emerging Artist of the Year

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.

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Vanessa German, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

It seems inconceivable that domestic antique objects, such as keys, clocks, and children’s toys are capable of carrying fetishistic meanings. In Vanessa German’s configuration, however, by mounting trivial antique playthings onto sculptures resembling African girls, she transforms the figurines into subjects for worship, and the whole assemblage of figurines into a sacred ceremony. Vanessa German—Emerging Artist of the Year—shows her mixed-media installation: 21st Century JuJu: New Magic, Soul Gadgets and Reckoning at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, a show that deploys to striking effect German’s own cultural-historical lineage as an African-American and woman. The playthings she uses are the “JuJu”— “an object superstitiously revered by certain West African peoples and used as charm or fetish.” Although she employs iconography embedded in ancient cult, German strives to bring attention to the most relevant issues around contemporary African-American lives.

The African doll is the center of German’s artistic creation, as well as the center of her manifestation of identity. In an interview, German indicated that she treated the doll with symbolic ornaments, each of which functioned as a word in a sentence that added to the overall meaning of the piece; but she does not identify the meaning of each ornament for us. The free association we can make out of the piece, on the one hand, bestows on it an open-ended interpretation; on the other, these possibilities for free association also make the appear as an undifferentiated assemblage, the meaning of which is simply dependent on the viewer. No matter how, the visual effect she achieves is an alluring one: with a surface-like mosaic made of golden jewelry and tiny shells, one brittle doll reflects the light, granting the doll a touch of scariness and solemnity. It is the solemnity of a mother’s dedication to a daughter in German’s works that gives them their deepest emotional resonance. For German, who was profoundly influenced by her mother, a textile artist, heritage is important for its application to present affairs. In her installation resembling a bedroom, tattered pairs of adult shoes are scattered from the end of the bed, extending off it in a trail that terminates in a pair of new, shiny baby girl’s shoes. A baby being held by its mother makes up one of German’s most powerful iconographic resources. Unfortunately, other symbols German creates through research in African-American history are not as easily consumed as this mother-daughter relation; the conceptual intricacy of these codes oftentimes fails to come across in the way that the sheer visual complexity of the work does.


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