Vanessa German

black on white swan


Published May 2020

Vanessa German (American, born 1976), “black on white swan“, 2016. Mixed media.
Alexander A. Goldfarb Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund

“Everything on the piece means something. If there are keys there, they mean forgiveness. They represent the power of both internal and external forgiveness, which is really a key in a doorway to another way of living…It’s as though the sculpture is a visual riddle and each object connects to the object next to it, but the accumulation of objects is like magic for the soul.”—Vanessa German

Vanessa German’s black on white swan (2016) was positioned as the lead figure in the artist’s politically-charged MATRIX exhibition titled i come to do a violence to the lie. The immersive installation of thirty-one female sculptures accompanied by a soundtrack found inspiration in both ancient Chinese terracotta warriors and civil rights protests and marches. In a world that continues to suffer from issues of racism, violence, and police brutality, German’s 2016 MATRIX project ultimately proposed to heal and unite communities through the power of love.

Detail of the Terracotta Warriors buried with China’s First Emperor, Qinshihuang in Xi’an, China, 210-209 BCE; Landmark civil rights march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in support of voter registration rights for African Americans in the south on March 7, 1965. Along the route, the marchers were violently confronted by local authorities. (film/video still: NBC news); Installation view of MATRIX 174, 2016. 

black on white swan is typical of German’s black sculptural figures, which have dramatically increased in scale and scope since 2010. The work begins with baby-doll parts—heads, arms, and legs—and a body that is layered with various objects bearing symbols and references, transforming it into an updated version of an African “Nkisi” power figure, a mystical sculpture that holds sacred vows and challenges evil. Likewise, German’s female sculpture features meaningful accumulations of traditional elements (cowrie shells, beads) and more contemporary embellishments (buttons, keys, bottles, wristwatches, and ceramic figurines). The found glass bottles hung around her neck evoke the history of bottle trees, the African practice to hang empty bottles from trees to trap and ward off evil spirits. The figure’s skirt, made up of swaddles or bundles of old “cutter” quilts, evoke ideas of security and comfort particularly for babies and children. 

Kongo (Solongo or Woyo subgroup), “Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)”, late 19th-early 20th century. Wood, iron, glass, fiber, pigment, bone. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos; Vanessa German, “black on white swan” (detail), 2016

More than a protector, this female warrior is also fierce. She carries a ball peen hammer as a weapon and is perched over a worn, green military ammunition crate. Her dark, sculpted tar face wears the intense expression of a fighter. Her penetrating eyes are ignited by rhinestones and her thick lips are formed by a single cowrie shell. Her headdress and epaulets comprise white ceramic figurines—cheap approximations of museum-quality Meissen porcelains—of horseheads on her shoulders and various figures (primarily men in waistcoats) crowning her head. She rides a white swan that traditionally symbolizes loyalty, strength, elegance, and beauty. But the title “black on white” introduces other more polarizing ideas relating to the current and ever-present dialogue about racial issues and violence: “black-on-white,” “white-on-black,” and “black-on-black.” German instills her female power figures with her instinctive passion, hope, and care, but also the potential for violence.