A figure stands tall in the Longworth Foyer at the Taft Museum of Art. Her body is made up of quilts, her feet clad in torn but bright yellow Converse shoes. In her hand, a bullhorn blooms with a bouquet of synthetic flowers. Her bronze face stares off, topped by hair that appears almost swan-shaped.
The sculpture, titled “I Am Reaching for the New Day,” is arguably the focal point of Vanessa German’s current gallery exhibition running with freedom at the Taft, which opened in July and runs through Oct. 21. Back-splashed by subdued green walls, the figure is vibrant. A mirror sits poised in her chest cavity, looking outward.
“I recognize that what happens to me in the studio, the making that I do, is activating of my own freedom,” German writes, as cited on wall text accompanying the sculpture. “I resist with my love. I resist with every song that rings through me. I resist by centering my joy. I resist through art.”
Seemingly, so do the powerful figures that make up her work.
Down the hall, sculptures occupy the Sinton Gallery. They fill the room: one with an arm upraised teetering on an alligator atop a toy skateboard, another with blue birds perched in its hair, a third sitting in a throne adorned with glitter.
The sculptures consist of both made and found objects (look closely and you’ll see one wears a “Where’s the beef?” pin while another is made up of used power cords); German makes the faces through a combination of plaster, wood and shells for the mouth. Then she covers them in tar. Other objects are found — in the trash, abandoned lots, flea markets or “wherever stuff is,” she says.
“I never use anything too precious because it will never be the same again,” she says. “But I put myself in places where interesting things are, whether I’m paying for it or picking it off a railroad track. I have that sort of satellite system inside me.”
She doesn’t begin projects with a “mathematical plan,” she says. But rather, her work starts from the inside and goes out. “I’m always looking for things; I’m always feeling. I’m always mining the dimensions of my identity and existence for objects that work within the language I speak culturally and poetically.”
German, 42, is a self-taught artist and performer based largely in Pittsburgh, though she did previously live in Greater Cincinnati for awhile. She is a recipient of the 2015 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, the 2017 Jacob Lawrence Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 2018 United States Artists Grant. Her work — both mixed-media sculptures and spoken word — has been featured in museums and publications across the nation.
German is the Taft’s current Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, a program to recognize contemporary African-American artists and honor the legacy of Robert Duncanson, the black artist who in the 19th century painted murals on the walls of the museum when it was the home of art patron Nicholas Longworth. As part of that residency, from Oct. 7-21 German will lead public programs, teach workshops and visit schools across Greater Cincinnati.
She calls the sculptures she creates “power figures”— depicting black female bodies. They often don quilted attire (her mother was a fiber artist) and are made up of miscellaneous objects. Frequently, they’re coded in what she refers to as a “matrix of identities.”
In “Water. Bones. Holy. Blood. Oh Yes.,” she says the object is a “black Madonna,” referring to the religious figure. Woven into it is imagery evocative of the Virgin Mary: A serpent sits at the figure’s feet; twisted black braids are outlined by a bedazzled halo with an all-seeing eye perched atop. By using ancient — often European — religious iconography, she says she’s able to reclaim often exclusive and restrictive images of what is depicted as sacred.
“When you think of the icons and the symbology that we have to reflect sacredness in American culture, it’s actually really racist,” she says. “Even if it’s pulled from other cultures, there’s not a lot of representation in the sacred symbology.”
By playing with these concepts through art, she can use them to question what is sacred in our larger culture as she considers the way her life is valued in society.
“In the present, depending on the culture that your life is active in, you can reclaim those images and rename them for something specific,” she says. “And so…you can apply that sacred and holy power to whatever specific use you want it to have.”
In her case, that use is irony. Here’s what German says her art asks of us: “Do we live in a time where only white bodies are seen as sacred? Do we live in a time where black bodies are seen as sacred? Is that evidenced by the lives that we live? Who is treated with sacredness? Whose ideas are treated with sacredness?”
The answers aren’t simple. Her work presents these questions through bold, ornate figures that often remind viewers of the racial encoding that accompanies seemingly innocent everyday objects, like Snow White Cream Soda bottle-caps.
In her Sinton Gallery show, titles of objects have a repetitive mantra-like effect, such as in her use of “Yes. See.” She acknowledges the importance of this.
“Yes is an affirmation, so in all of the ways that the work is affirmed by my hands, by existing — all of those things count,” she says.
But she can’t say exactly what that “Yes” means, despite the word’s reoccurrence. All she knows is that those affirmations return with the permission and agency of her own soul. Just like everything else she does.
vanessa german: running with freedom is up through Oct. 21 at the Taft Museum of Art (316 Pike St., Downtown). For more information, visit taftmuseum.org.