On 16 June 2016, four days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, artist Vanessa German hosted a “Night of Illumination for Orlando” in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, a community marked by a Rachel Maddow report in 2011 as America’s most dangerous.1 Over the past nine years, German has come to offer Homewood—at her own residence and at the ARThouse, a community center for children she established down the street—a therapeutic nucleus where residents regularly gather to counter the trauma of gun violence. The June event demonstrated yet another instance of solidarity and healing: those present decorated, lit, and sent into the sky paper lanterns in honor of the 49 lives lost at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. And the mourning did not stop there, with volunteers continuing to release lanterns “in honor and remembrance of ALL victims of gun violence,” as German wrote on Facebook.
Since moving from her parents’ suburban Pittsburgh home to her own house in Homewood, German has been cultivating her lifestyle as a “citizen artist,”2 interweaving the creation of her art and her interaction with her immediate community and beyond. At first, this practice emerged out of her necessity for a larger studio space: she had set up shop in her unfinished basement, but often ended up bringing her sculptures—which she calls “power figures”—onto her much roomier porch as the figures expanded in size under an accumulation of foam board, cloth dipped in plaster and wood glue, black paint mixed with roofing tar, figurines, empty bottles, nails, coffee tins, and other “cast-off relics,” many of them from Homewood’s streets. Neighborhood children eventually began to express curiosity about the figures, which led the artist to explain her process of creating them as a stabilizing act of self-love, a force to pit against the trauma of living through unpredictable bouts of gun violence—something German herself dealt with growing up in Los Angeles, where gang shootings were a regular occurrence.
Eventually German gave her front yard an official name, Love Front Porch, and by mid-2012 the Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation had allowed her five months of access to host the children in a vacant home on the same block—the first iteration of ARThouse. Through fundraising efforts and art sales, she purchased another home on her block, which now serves as ARThouse’s permanent location.
All the while, German has continued to create her power figures, a term she adapted from the central African tradition of nkisi nkondi (Congolese for “spirit hunter”), guardian statuettes carved out of wood and pierced with nails and other sharp objects. When she began she was not directly conscious of her artistic connection to the nkisi nkondi, but felt her instinctual inheritance as one to trust. “Somebody saw [a] piece that I made with nails in the hair, and they said oh, that’s like this thing that people do in Africa,” she said in a 2014 interview with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. “And that made me wonder even more what I could possibly do that was innate . . . because literally in the strands of my DNA is everyone who came before me . . . and so I let myself delve completely, fully, into a world of materials and a world of process, really reckoning with what it meant for my own self to be alive.”
The accretion of each object on German’s handmade black bodies turns African American history inside out for the benefit of its inheritors and for herself: internalized traumas, joys, acceptances, and liberties are made mutually visible. Beyond the artist’s nod to African ancestral tradition through the inclusion of materials such as cowrie shells for lips, her work also references the Atlantic slave trade and the pain and resilience of slaves in America. In Considering the End, a canister of Flying Dutchman shoe polish and a miniature ship sit atop one female figure’s head, while the other female figure stands tall under the oppressive weight of a globe and a wooden zebra—but the bulky headdresses also hold two birds, one poised on a flower in full bloom and the other perched, wings spread, on top of a glass cloche resting on the zebra’s back, a small black mammy trapped underneath. Despite the weight on both figures, there’s some hope that the birds might lift up and away, offering a modicum of freedom to the women below.
German’s creations are also informed by the continuing racism resulting from slavery and by capitalism’s material glut. Many of her figures balance on skateboards, maneuvering their troubles while dressed in an excess of discarded objects and novelty items, like the girl wearing a skirt made of tennis-shoe keychains and assorted keys in 2 ships passing in the night, or i take my soul with me everywhere i go, thank you.
The call of the Black Lives Matter movement resounds throughout German’s oeuvre, but nowhere louder than in So many many dead black bodies, or why the niggas always gotta be shootin’ when they get mad, or take your beef outside, or, the trauma stays and stays, or once again, the derivative ______ makes a mockable, public spectacle of her grief. Here, a female figure weeping crystal-bead tears holds a found stop sign in her left hand and the limp figure of a dead black child bound in red thread in her right, her waistline bearing the forged contrast of several silver toy pistols.
Heading up the portfolio are German’s “Materials Lists,” which give a fuller portrait of the artist’s intricate creative labors. Using her strengths as a poet and performance artist, German proclaims anger at injustice and violence, fierce investment in her chosen objects, and the desire for healing and love. In a particularly invocative move, the materials list for golden holy shine az a suit of armor fo yo soul is entirely metaphysical, a call to not only wear the suit for empowerment but also to wear language itself by speaking out, as the accompanying power figure does with pride, presenting in glimmering red the words HOLY, I WOKE UP LIKE DIS, yes, yes, and FLAWLESS.
Copyright © 2016 Vanessa German. All images appear courtesy of the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery.
1. Transcript at http://www.msnbc.com/transcripts/rachel-maddow-show/2011-05-06
2. All quoted material in this paragraph comes from German’s artist statement at http://visualartexchange.org/ignite/sessions/2016-keynote-speaker/
Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce that Vanessa German’s 2 ships passing in the night, or i take my soul with me everywhere i go, thank you (2014)—featured in this portfolio—will appear in our 70th anniversary art exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art on the University of Georgia campus, 5 November 2016 to 29 January 2017. Many thanks to Vanessa German and Pavel Zoubok Gallery for this honor.
1. Forgiveness (2014), 45 × 55 × 25 in.
old baby doll body, skateboard, about 100 keys, homewood beads, black weave hair, hope, meanness, old broke toy rifle, ironing board, love, the spirit of protection, hot, like dancing out into the middle of on-coming traffic and not getting hit or hurt at all—just dodging the possibility of destruction, smooth and unbruised as new skin, raggedy old ship model, toy gun, light switches, swaddle beads, the idea that all of this is my fault, the idea that all of that wealth belongs to you, rusty things i found in a cigar box, rusty thing that made me smile, wood, tar, black pigment, hair, hand blown glass orbs as hair—because who doesn’t love a show. a bit of ratchet . . . or a work of art, make your head the mountaintop, make your head tell a story about redemption. love, cruelty, the violence of greed, rope, cloth, twine, wire, rhinestones, tar, small radio flyer wagon, old honesty cigar store indian-reproduction-piggy bank, white pigment, cell phone, hot wheels cars, toy guns, beads, cowrie shells, the insistence of it, as though a living. loving force. forgiveness for all of those _____, and_____, and that time when_____, and how _____, because, _____ and _____. thank you.
2. golden holy shine az a suit of armor fo yo soul (2015), 44 × 26 × 8 in.
(i woke up like dis) they will want to come n lay on you wit all matter n manner of convincing you to your own worthlessness—lies! lies! lies i tell you—and here iz the suit of armor you must wear for the reckoning
3. golden holy shine az a suit of armor fo yo soul detail (2015)
4. Considering the End (2014), 65 × 28 × 17 1/2 in.
old zebra doll, old broke toy boat, mirror, homewood beads, black weave hair, maxwell house coffee tin, wooden plank, swaddle beads, rusty things i found in a cigar box, wood, tar, rusty things, black pigment, rage, hurt, hand blown glass orbs and tears—because who doesn’t love a show, cruelty, rope, love, cloth, the violence of greed, redemption, globe, nails, watch face, old german doll parts, keys, toy cash register, flying dutchman shoe polish to clean my shoes, light switches
5. Untitled (Skateboard) (2015), 48 × 52 × 16 in.
old baby doll, plaster, wood glue, wood, black pigment, tar, skateboard, old masted model ship, a hard thing in my spirit, internal conflict, how i think i hate sometimes, then the moment moves on, tears, cloth, twine, wooden rhino and duck, hand
6. American Family Scale #7: The Hammer Series (2013), 42 × 22 1/2 × 11 in.
scale, hand carved wooden acorn, old doll, made in japan figurines, the way it feels to be watching television and never see happy people of color in regular joyful places unless it is mcdonald’s, rage, sorrow, twine, cotton cloth, hammer, tar, wood, plaster, wood glue, black pigment, white pigment, cowrie shells, meanness, sorrow—yes, sorrow again, i probably have a condition, sick and tired of having to act like i am not outraged when something happens that is so clearly outrageous—like Trayvon, sick and tired of acting like i do not have to cry when i see that another black boy has been shot and killed by another black boy, sick and tired of having to act like that is normal, weave hair, wire, nails, old german doll heads from bombed out factories, and hand mirror
7. American Family Scale #7: The Hammer Series detail (2013)
8. Delia on the Plane, or Cabbage Slicer (2012), 32 × 17 × 15 in.
old baby doll body, tar, red and white and black paint, bird salt and pepper shaker, cabbage slicer, iron-on of Delia the slave, hot iron, rage, nails, wood, plaster gauze, wood glue, fire in her eyes, small print of the holy mother on her back, meanness, clarity, how much pain to be quantified, the legacy, the legacy, the legacy
9. 2 ships passing in the night, or i take my soul with me everywhere i go, thank you (2014), 47 × 27 × 12 in.
2 decorative ship models, doll parts, cloth, twine, fear, hair grease, tar, love, skateboard, white beads, homewood beads, rhinestones for the eyes, mirror, antique blue ticking, the ocean, slavery on an everyday basis as made real and present by the reality of white supremacy, righteous clarity, keys, coffee tins, stomach mirror, old jr. navigators flashlight, white porcelain doll heads from the bombed out doll factories in germany, the journey from rage to understanding, the journey from compassion for everyone else to compassion for myself, the journey from lies to truth, the actualization of justice as national migration, old natty quilt parts, pain, and horror and how it feels to know that no one is actually on your side, being blamed for it, pure lard tin, red skateboard
10. So many many dead black bodies . . . detail (2014)
11. So many many dead black bodies, or, why the niggas always gotta be shootin’ when they get mad, or take your beef outside, or, the trauma stays and stays and stays, or once again, the derivative ____ makes a mockable, public spectacle of her grief (2014), 48 × 60 × 30 in.
old baby doll parts, skateboard, found STOP sign, bullseye glass crate, black pigment, sorrow, the way i had to lay out for ra-ra that there are so very many ways to die—that he need not get shot, pain from the funeral, hand blown glass vessels with my rare friend’s hair in them, he is a black, gay, male, therapist, a healer—and his hair is like a universal prayer for strength and clarity and hope, that girl on the street who threw herself on to the police car screaming, the power of love, so much sorrow, the heavy mean, mean sorrow that is like. cloth, wood, tar, glass tear droplets, wire, the word nigga, the harlem shake video, the jim derogatis quote from the village voice, “nobody is less valuable to our society than black girls,” the way that i get carded when i show my membership card to the carnegie museum, all of the billboards that say $5000 Reward—for information leading to the arrest on the murders of young black people, blue ticking, meanness, police tape, gravel from the sidewalk, pressure gage, 3 virgin marys, plaster gauze, sparkling gems sugar container, some things that i stole from the slave plantation tour in Louisiana, 4 hallelujahs, the way the tears come back when you least expect it. a deep, deep well/wail of grief, because sometimes it is too much, because, because, because, small black tar baby figure
12. The Stars That You Are Reaching for Are Already Inside of You (2014), 65 × 25 × 20 in.
wood, wood glue, plaster gauze, tar, mirage, cowrie shells, love, old plastic doll parts, witness, pain, steel, old blue chair, keys, cloth, old jewelry, mission bottles, old bottles, lard tin—for carrying the bullshit around in, clock at center of chest, buttons, wood box, bronzed baby shoes, star pins, and urgency
Front cover: White American Cheese (2014), 41 × 24 × 10 in.
skateboard, toy banjo, that—are we there yet—feeling, 3 porcelain figures for the white american cheese box, old doll parts, antique blue ticking that is older than i am, tar, red, white, blue, black pigment, cloth, pain, pain, pain, ok ok ok, rhinestone for eyes, i’m not over it, cloth, wood, twine, where’s the beef pin, toy alligator, cowrie shells, pressure gauge, mirror on her back—to watch her back—who will watch your back—oh lord here we go—who took my cheese?
Back cover: Forgiveness detail (2014), 45 × 55 × 25 in.