The contrast is startling. A colorful, running figure of a woman — carrying a megaphone bursting with flowers — activates the traditional, neo-classical foyer of the Taft Museum of Art. The sculpture is one of six created by Vanessa German, the Taft’s 2018 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, and a featured work in “vanessa german: running with freedom,” a special exhibition running through October 21 at the Taft.
German’s figures are very unlike the sober oil portraits and marble busts that populate the Museum’s galleries. While the Taft’s works largely depict wealthy white people from a bygone era, German’s sculptures reflect the African American experience — both contemporary and historic — loudly, yet smartly.
German is the Taft’s 32nd Duncanson Artist-in-Residence. According to Museum literature, the residency program was started in 1986 “to affirm an ongoing African American presence within the structure of the Taft.” Named after artist Robert S. Duncanson, the painter of the Taft’s magnificent 1850s landscape murals, the residency promotes the work of African American artists. Duncanson was an African American and an abolitionist. His patron, Nicholas Longworth — also an abolitionist — owned Belmont, the house that would eventually become the Taft Museum of Art. The residency program celebrates the relationship between Duncanson and Longworth as artist and patron.
German’s sculptures definitely affirm and reinforce the African American presence inside the Museum. Her work draws on a number of historical and contemporary references, from folk art to hip hop and from African power figures (nkisi nkondi) to European religious icons. German’s pieces also play on African American stereotypes, and in many ways, she reclaims those stereotypes and converts them into positive expressions. For example, her use of cowrie shells for mouths: the shells mimic the exaggerated lips of minstrels, but for centuries, cowries were a valuable commodity, serving as currency in West Africa, and they symbolize female power and fertility.
All of German’s works are made from found objects, such as shells, toys, watches, electrical outlets, porcelain figurines, artificial bling and scraps of quilts, which are layered and wrapped around her figures with strings, ribbons and beads. The visual effect is similar to the power figures, or nkisi nkondi, of Central Africa, where nails and other objects are attached to figurative sculptures as a way of generating spiritual power.
“When she is finding all these discarded objects and putting them together in such incredible ways, I feel like those objects have their own special meanings and special powers, because they were discarded but now have a new purpose,” explains Elise Solomon, director of learning and engagement at the Taft Museum of Art. In this way, the artist seems to give new life to these previously unwanted items. Solomon and other staff members are eagerly anticipating German’s arrival on October 7 for the beginning of her two-week residency at the Taft. Much of the residency will revolve around German’s spoken word performances and poetry, in addition to her sculptural pieces.
“Vanessa calls herself a ‘citizen artist’ because she doesn’t just create sculpture and these 3D works,” explains Solomon. “She is also a performance artist and presents spoken word pieces to the public.”
Indeed, each of the labels inside the exhibition features poetry by German, and events associated with the residency will include spoken word performances. “A Night of Spoken Word” will headline the artist and also feature local artists and arts organizations, including Elementz, Triiibe and Cincinnati’s poet laureate, Manual Iris.
Back to our figure in the Taft Museum’s main foyer: It is titled “I Am Reaching For The New Day,” and it perfectly reflects the spirit of the exhibition, “running with freedom.” German captures the figure in the act of running. The flowers bursting from the megaphone not only play on the Duncanson landscapes and flowered still lifes surrounding the sculpture, but also serve as a metaphor for German’s poetry and freedom of expression.
“Vanessa really believes in the power of art and love,” says Solomon, “and that really comes across when you look at her work and when you listen to her spoken word.”
“vanessa german: running with freedom” is open through October 21. Her residency runs from October 7 through October 21.
Franck Mercurio is a museum professional with more than 16 years experience working in exhibitions, publications and fundraising. Originally from Cincinnati, Mercurio is now based in Chicago where he manages fundraising communications for the Field Museum and works as a freelance writer for “Chicago Gallery News” and other cultural publications. He has fond memories of visiting the Taft Museum of Art when he was a kid and dreams of someday returning to his hometown.