Beyond art: Taft’s Artist-in-Residence tackles social change

Beloved by 19th-century audiences around the world, an African-American artist soon fell into obscurity, only to be celebrated as a genius a century later. It was in the mid 19th century when Robert S. Duncanson arrived at the home of England’s poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He brought with him his most celebrated painting, “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” based on a poem by the great man of letters.

Now Duncanson is known in many American art circles as “the greatest landscape painter in the West and there is a local art museum who is on a mission to keep Duncanson’s memory alive.

Art history museums routinely showcase art respective to their mission, but less common do early 19th-century art museums intertwine their traditional artistic zest with the contemporary, and it’s rare that a contemporary visual artist works with a museum to spread their efforts to the community.

A museum artist-in-residence stint may see an artist confined to the inside of a museum, tolling away at their work to create magnificent display pieces. But there are pioneering artist-in-residence programs, like at Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art, where it’s one of the artists’ prerequisites to get out and engage with the community.

This year, the Taft Museum of Art and the Robert S. Duncanson Society have selected visual and performance artist Vanessa German as the 2018 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence.

Conducted annually since 1986, The Duncanson Artist-in-Residence Program honors the achievements of contemporary African American artists working in a variety of disciplines. The program’s namesake was commissioned by Longworth to paint landscape murals in the foyer of his home, now the Taft Museum of Art.

Duncanson made a living working as small-time artist, mostly in Detroit and here in Cincinnati. But in 1848, his career received a major boost when anti-slavery activist Charles Avery commissioned him, which lead to a relationship with abolitionists who wanted to support black artists, and spurred a passion in Duncanson for landscape painting.

And while he never overtly addressed racial issues in his paintings, subtle messages appear in works. In his “View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky,” Duncanson contrasts blacks laboring alongside the Ohio River on Kentucky’s slave plantations as whites lounge nearby.

This year’s artist specializes in mixed-media sculptures and outstanding assemblages that are featured in a special exhibition entitled “Vanessa German: Running With Freedom.” This exhibit will be open for general admission at the Taft, and runs through October 21 in the museum’s Sinton Gallery.

One of the aspects of German’s art that caught the eye of the Taft Museum staff is that her work is constructed from found objects, including doll parts, antique tins, beads, household items, and other cast-off relics. German’s manipulation of these found items have been labeled “power figures,” evoking folk art traditions, religious icons, and African nkisi nkondi — ritual figures carved from wood to embody mystical forces.

“We are delighted that Vanessa German has been named the 2018 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence,” says Deborah Emont Scott, director and CEO of the Taft. “Through her work as both an artist and an educator, German seeks to transform lives through the power of art and love.”

While spending her young adult years in Loveland, Ohio, German began collecting, assembling, and painting found objects to create works of art, which led her to become the artist she is today.

“I am thrilled to be selected as the 2018 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence,” says German. “I’m looking forward to do a residency in a place where I had formative art experiences. It was a place where, as a young adult, my art intersected with activism and I began engaging with issues that matter.”

German’s sculptures bridge the past and the present: antiques mingle with provocative imagery, challenging stereotypes and confronting current issues facing African American communities.

Now based in Pittsburgh, German is a true multidisciplinary artist, and her sculptural work, spoken word, and community art initiatives have garnered national attention. Her work has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, and in the Huffington Post, O Magazine, and Essence Magazine.

German’s art has been exhibited in museums nationwide, including the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Ringling Museum of Art. The Taft also featured German’s work as part of the 2013 exhibition “African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.”

She also is a recipient of the 2015 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, the 2017 Jacob Lawrence Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a 2018 United States Artists Grant.

On Thursday, October 11, the Taft Museum will officially kick off this year’s residency with an opening reception, free and open to the public. During the event, attendees will be able to meet the artist, see her exhibition, and be inspired by her words. A full schedule of events can be found on the museum's website.

Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.
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