Pittsburgh-based visual and performance artist Vanessa German, known for her activism as well sculptures incorporating found objects and female figurines, considers the experience of a vulnerable, underserved, and criminalized segment of America in the exhibition, Things Are Not Always What They Seem: A Phenomenology of Black Girlhood. Recalling a foundation of artists who use mixed-media assemblage to relay messages about social issues affecting the black community (see Betye Saar, Renee Stout, and Kahlil Robert Irving ), German’s work combines diasporic consciousness and African religious traditions—specifically referencing minkisi, or spiritual effigies of the Kongo people. German represents the accumulative trauma enacted upon the black body in subtle ways, such as including chilled lead shot bags in She Missed—Without Knowing What She Missed and alluding to the violent murder of Nia Wilson, a Bay Area teenager, by a white supremacist in A Love Poem to Nia Wilson #2. Each work stands on its own platform in the gallery, forming a squad of silent witnesses to the precarious circumstances that reflect systemic injustices.
Clocks, mirrors, birds, and other tchotchkes are repeating motifs throughout this body of work, perhaps symbolizing the delicacy of a childhood denied—or lost time—as black girls are perceived as being older and less innocent than their white counterparts. German’s intervention evokes the idea of protection—how it is denied and how it extends from self—by virtue of the power icons she references. According to Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, the representing gallery, “[these] figures stand united and in formation to show the ways in which black girls save their own lives, create their own paths and contend with their power and pain to triumph in a hostile environment.” True, Black girls, like nkisi nkondi are containers of infinite power, vast worlds, and secret lives. However, resilience is often used as a conciliatory admiration in the face of egregious maltreatment. Triumphing in spite of has become an ongoing predicament.