Currently on view at the Union for Contemporary Art is sometimes. we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies., an installation by multifaceted artist Vanessa German, whose social practice is personal, imaginative and most of all, never out of fashion.
Gallery notes that accompany the show state the work specifically addresses violence against people of color, particularly within the LGBTQ+ community, and the “…spiritual impact of systemic racism and its attendant brutalities…”
Though the current state of the arts is crowded with attention to these issues, and some of the imagery is a little predictable, the artist’s message comes through loud and clear in this elaborate exhibition.
Based out of the Homewood community of Pittsburgh, German is a visual and performance artist and community advocate. She is known for her spoken-word performances, poetry, and, as in this exhibit, her multi-media installations usually featuring intricate and colorful fabric work and embellished figures.
The show, which fits comfortably into the Wanda D. Ewing Gallery at Omaha’s Union for Contemporary Art, is presented in three parts. The first is displayed for viewing from outside as one approaches. In a large window on the front of the building we find a written piece by the artist, presented in gold lettering on a black background.
The piece, which fills the window, starts with a poem/story told in hip-hop prose, visually established through the staccato placement of many periods and the occasional insertion of “(new paragraph).” This is accompanied by a second window featuring several excerpts from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and a couple from Homegoing, by novelist Yaa Gyasi.
German’s rap message is clear and strong, and, sadly, still needs repeating. Some may, however, find it difficult to read from the sidewalk. Not recommended, but this reviewer took life in hand and stood in the middle of northbound lane of 24th Street to read it comfortably.
The choice of Yaa Gyasi is refreshing. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, who won much praise for her first novel, Homegoing, is fresh and current. Morrison, venerated by many, passed away just this last August. That choice, however applicable and eloquent, seems a little overused. Especially citing her novel Song of Solomon, as it has been the go-to book for the civil rights activists and artists for many decades.
Moving into the building, the Gallery is divided into two rooms, the second closed off visually from the first by means of a heavy, blood-red curtain. This initial gallery space, ominous with black-painted walls, is populated by ghostly, god-like heads floating disquietingly on the wall. The feeling was a little concerning, but mostly one of reverence.
The heads could be alive and/or dead — they are without much detail — but delineated enough to be probably African and probably female. Each presents a different embellished coiffeur, sporting appropriated items with connections to native African tradition, American black history, and items commonly associated with stereotyping and marginalization. These priestesses only barely reflect an expression, but each seems to exude power and knowledge.
As with most installation pieces, it is advisable to experience the whole thing before getting on too deeply with interpretation. Parting the red curtain, the viewer is met with a bright, sparkling landscaped room; a colorful, flowery carpet on golden ground, populated by Harlequin-like figures dressed in festive colors and heavily festooned. The figures are arranged on a few “islands” in a room painted with vibrant black and white irregular stripes, giving the terroir an active and exotic, African-esque feel.
Each figure, dressed in brightly colored, quilted and tufted fabrics, is densly adorned with found objects: ceramic figurines of white “gentry”, keys, nails, guns, birds, advertising, bottles, targets, etc…, all with intrinsic allusion to the history and “culture” of race relations and the concepts of marginalization and minstrelization. Much of the symbolism is obvious, but a few items might test your capacity for association, being obscure enough to present a choice.
It is important to note that these figures are faceless/headless (except for one,) and a few include mirrors, emphasizing the innate conflicts with personal identity, pride, inclusion and recognition, so often connected. Most notable is the mirror-faced climactic figure, prostrate and center, and the only figure with a head.
Using the reflection of the viewer is one of the most provocative elements of the installation. It brings the stuff of self-examination and self-discovery together, begging the questions, “Where do you fit in?,” “What part do you have in all this?,” and “How will you survive this?”
This final figure lays in front of a bicycle, a possible allusion to the “flying” (escape) metaphor so prevalent in Morrison’s Song of Solomon. As in the book, this act of leaving is presented as the cathartic act, the first step of the journey of discovery, referred to by German as a “reckoning.” All of the figures are joined by a thin yellow string running through this group of figures, which ultimately arrives at a concentrated, climactic point at the bicycle.
The two rooms work well together, exercising the many complex societal, cultural and psychological aspects of race relations and general acceptance and treatment of fellow human beings. Her craftwork, especially in the treatment of the figures and heads, is beautifully executed.
It is a message of acknowledgement, discovery, recognition and personal growth. The show, though sourced from tragic and disturbing events of history (and current society,) is visually and symbolically one of discovery and ultimate redemption.
Vanessa Germans work has won several awards including the Jacob Lawrence Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the lucrative Don Tyson Prize from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Her work has been seen on regional and national television, in museums and galleries across the US, and is in many public and private collections.
A search on YouTube reveals a few of German’s spoken word pieces and interviews. German is also skilled quilter and fabric artist, a talent cultivated through her late mother, Sandra Keat German, also an award-winning artist and quilter, and activist.
The multi-media installation, sometimes.we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies., was originally conceived for the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh in 2017. It was organized for The Union by independent curator and current U-CA Program Director Nicole J. Caruth. This showing is the recipient of this year’s Wanda D. Ewing Commission, an annual Commission supporting the production and presentation of new work by a woman artist of the African diaspora.
The show runs through November 30th.The Union is located at 2423 N. 24th Street, and gallery hours and further information is available at its website, www.u-ca.org.