by Richard Allen May III
May 8, 2019
As noted in 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History (1996) by Jeffrey Stewart, Althea Gibson received her first tennis racket in 1940, being barely a teenager. She was not only the first African American to win a women’s singles at Wimbledon; but also in 1957 and 1958, she achieved status of being ranked as number one female tennis player in the world! Moonwalking forward more than six decades later, Vanessa German uses the creative tool as a weapon of agency at Gavlak Los Angeles in her exhibition, “$LANG: Short Language in Soul.” Through found tennis rackets and figurative sculpture, German honors Black femininity while simultaneously assaulting circus-mirror distorting perceptions of beauty.
For example, her series of tennis rackets from a distance appear as hand-held mirrors with a carefully rendered frontal or profile faces of a Black woman gazing confidently. Curving in a complementary manner with the circular composition of the tennis racket, hair in the form of braids or curls is a reminder of African beauty—especially when German appropriates seashells, beads, plants of all types and elaborate earrings. Of significance is when German uses butterflies or a crown to signify the transformative cocoon journey or royalty. Moreover, allowing the braids to hang parallel with the Wilson tennis racket logo visible hints of the resilience of Black women like Althea Gibson, who did not allow the marginalizing tennis racketto define her.
Iconoclastic in appearance, German sculpts with searing sensitivity and dismantling energy large painted female interpretations influenced by traditional Congolese Nkisi power images. By adding such items as plastic toys, fabric, bottle caps and feathers to model form, the viewer is inspired to walk around these Brickhouse sistahs being hypnotized. This recontextualizing of the Black female body is reminiscent of the sculptural work by Alison Saar and Renee Stout. Ultimately, Vanessa German’s work is a baptism of queen confidence, chocolate skin, penetrating sacred stares, voluptuous lips and rollercoaster hips. She succeeds at crucifying cultural colonialism.