In 1972 Betye Saar made "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima," a signature piece that used a derogatory image as a symbol of empowerment. In a shadow box, Saar presented mammy as a proud warrior who carried a rifle.
Inspired by Joseph Cornell and by Simon Rodia's Watts Towers, Saar became a pioneer of assemblage art. Her strategy of reclaiming stereotypical imagery was timely and effective, but 40 years later, the use of potentially offensive imagery is still a touchy subject. While many contemporary artists, such as Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles, use stereotypes to challenge their audiences, the question remains whether people are so inured to the imagery that it is no longer provocative.
Yet the use of mammies, Uncle Toms, pickaninnies and other "blackabilia" is not necessarily problematic as long as the artist has a keen eye and a sure hand. This is evidenced in Vanessa German's Emerging Artist of the Year show at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. German is a fine assemblage artist, and her show includes some impressive work. She creates positive and powerful totemic icons with ease, often incorporating antique books, tins and figures that otherwise would have negative connotations.
For example, in one large gallery German has placed 15 sculptural figures she calls "tar babies" in an oval, all of them facing out. They wear amulets and bottles, keys and buttons, locks and cowries. With titles like "Ain't No Use in Crying in the Boot," "Watermelon Madonna" and "The Littlest Rebel Rises Up Again," each one projects his or her own particular pathos.
Still, while German's skill has garnered her a measure of success, her sculptures, textiles and installations in this exhibition are mostly derivative. One can find echoes of other artists such as Saar, David Hammons, Fred Wilson and Renee Stout, and it is clear that German borrows a great deal from folk art and Congolese minkisi.
German is earnest in her craft. In her statement, she writes: "I wanted to create that which I loved to create" and "I will go where my soul wants to go." That is a fine start for an emerging visual artist, but German has yet to find the same dynamic individual style in her artwork that she has in her performance art. Her piece for the most recent Pittsburgh Biennial, called "Minstrel Blood: The Greatest Show on Earth! Everything You Need Fo Yo Menstrual Show," was more inventive and dynamic, and came close to achieving the type of distinctiveness and complexity that she accomplishes in her solo "spoken-word operas."
Nonetheless, a few pieces in this exhibition stand out. If you approach the second gallery from the first one, along one wall you will see a group of three female figures side by side, each with an antique chair facing her. Called "Blue; Cabin where Dr. King wrote the I have a Dream speech," "White; Water at the shores" and "Red; 600 year old oak tree," each figure wears a beatific expression and is painted the corresponding color of her title. Holding their arms halfway up, the figures appear to be levitating, but a large can, a pedestal and a small end table ground each of them respectively. Wearing wide hooped skirts and video monitors at their torsos — where a nkisi might have a mirror — these figures are larger than any of the others in the show. But by comparison, they are minimally adorned. Emanating from one's head is a large hand; from another's juts a gnarled root; and from the third a golden halo like some patron saint's. Their symbolism is varied and multilayered. They are religious icons; the Orishas (Gods of Santeria); ancestral power figures; "fetishes"; and even Old Glory. The videos are subtle and meditative, yet evoke an undercurrent of beauty and pain, agony and ecstasy.
German titles her exhibition 21st Century Juju: New Magic, Soul Gadgets and Reckoning, and explains on her website that she is inspired by many things. These include "the western coast of Africa, the east coast of the Carolinas, the east end of Pittsburgh, and random gun violence," as well as "tongues speaking in hands." Her method of working is not unlike that of many visionary artists, who say their hands are guided by a spiritual presence. But German is also a committed activist and storyteller who is interested in the ways art can transform, transcend and heal. She accumulates, repurposes and creates, so that objects not only carry the weight of history but also the power of renewal.