Profile: Vanessa German (1976-)

Vanessa German is an American sculptor, painter, writer, activist, performer, and poet based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Her sculpture often includes assembled statues of female figures created with their heads/ faces painted black and a wide range of attached objects flowing outward including fabric, keys, found objects, and toy weapons. German serves as an activist addressing problems such as gun violence and prostitution.

German uses her art to address hate in the world while also expressing hope for the future.

Early life

Vanessa German was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles and Loveland, Ohio  by her mother, a fiber artist, quilterand costume maker.  She is the third of five children. She moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2000 and began to perform and exhibit her work locally. She describes her work as heavily influenced by her childhood in Los Angeles, where her mother encouraged the children to make their own clothes, and she was also impacted by the AIDS epidemic and drive-by shootings.

Artistic career

A self-taught artist, much of German’s artwork is collage and sculpted assemblages. German’s sculptural work frequently includes female figures that she calls “power figures” and “tar babies”. She creates them by decorating and painting large dolls and figures, then sculpting outward, and adding a wide range of materials including, for example cowrie shell lips, plastic guns, feathers, bottle caps, seashells, toys, and vintage products. She often uses found and donated materials from her Homewood neighborhood She describes discovering that her work included elements similar to the central African tradition of Nkisi nkondi, guardian statues pierced with nails and other materials.

Her materials list for works often include both the physical (e.g. cloth, paint, keys) and non-tangible materials (e.g. “the names of all the dead boys that I know,” “tears”). Recurring themes addressed in her work include food, birds, violence, injustice, poverty, and Black Madonna imagery. In her artist statement for 2016’s dontsaythatshitoutloud, she describes the impact of finding two men murdered outside her house within a four-month period.

Her work includes the symbolic use of color throughout. Describing beads from one work, she said “If they’re red, they’re holding rage and love simultaneously. If they’re white – they’re holding ghosts – the presence of your ancestors …and they’re also holding forgiveness and peace.”

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