Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer
Vanessa German’s sculptures have the power to fly, to sing, to heal ailments, to call deeply upon history, to spark curiosity and to bind us together in our humanity. Her mixed-media found-object compositions have their roots in her endlessly creative life as a poet, photographer, actress, designer, educator and sculptor.
Her solo exhibit, “American JuJu: Root and Power for a New Century,” opens today from 3–5 p.m. in the Strohl Art Center’s Bellowe Family Gallery, with German performing several of her spellbinding spoken-word poems at the reception.
“I grew up in an environment where there were always the ingredients for making something else,” said German, the daughter of a fiber artist who encouraged her children to create, to read and to perform. “There was never a time in my life that I don’t remember making things and being a performer. That’s how I knew myself; that’s how I understood who I was.”
“American JuJu” represents a new cycle of work for German, most of which was created specifically for the show. Judy Barie, exhibition curator and Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution director of galleries, has followed and admired German’s work for several years, and asked her to put together the exhibition more than a year ago.
“I was immediately drawn to her work,” Barie said. “I thought, we need to get her work in here before it really takes off.”
The title of the exhibition combines history, culture and reckoning.
“When I first came in contact with the word ‘juju,’ I understood it to mean a kind of magic.” German said. “A kind of created, hand-worked magic that was both out of this world and completely of this world.”
As she learned more definitions, each added to the richness of the term. The French term joujou, meaning plaything, weaves well into the aesthetic playfulness of German’s work.
“I’m inclined to make sculptures that look like they used to be toys, as if they are artifacts, as if they existed out of time or they existed 200 years ago and they were precious things,” she said.
German is also strongly influenced by power figures from the Congo, imbued with human belief in their power to protect or heal. The important spiritual figures were not kept apart from daily life, German said, but rather celebrated by constant use and proximity.
Her sculptures draw on the same reservoir of human belief.
“I created power figures to protect the spirit of curiosity and imagination,” she said. “I believe so much in what I do that I can direct it at an issue or at a particular theme and have it be effective.”
The exhibition also deals with the power figures in their contemporary American context, grappling with current racial inequity and economic injustice.
“I was involved in a lot of conversations after the 2008 election about whether we are post-racial now, and I was thinking about all of the ways that I continue to experience, personally, racism,” German said. “I was thinking about the ripples in time of Jim Crow, the ripples of slavery, the ripples of the Three-Fifths law, and how I still live with the evidence of that every day around me.”
The slippage between German’s belief that all humans are valuable and her experiences with inequality saturate her art with a strong message and vitality.
“I’m using these power figures to address some of the reckoning that I feel still has to happen between human beings and the issues of how America was made,” she said.
“ ‘American JuJu’ is partially about that reckoning about worth and the value of liberty.”
Her sculptures often feature symbols of freedom, such as flying birds. They are all created out of found objects, a process that had its roots in affordability, but grew to represent the power of the past and reinvention.
“What I experience inside of found objects is that they come with a history, and they come with an identity and they come with so many stories inside of those objects already,” German said. “I’m partially playing with the concrete definition of the object, but then I’m also playing with the poetry of objects and I’m repurposing the object and giving the object a new identity inside of whatever intention the power figure has.
“The found object is existing in a continuum. It’s representing its past, its present and its future simultaneously.”
German’s power figures will stand in the Bellowe Family Gallery for the rest of the season, monuments to imagination that help people come to terms with their humanity.
“Every object that goes into one of my sculptures is as a word in a paragraph, in a story. All of that information is cumulative to the meaning and the story of the sculpture,” German said.
“These sculptures are the process to a deeply held belief that human beings at our best are loving, caring, forgiving, communal people.”