vanessa german art installation on the national mall
vanessa german's installation, "Of Thee We Sing," is on view through Sept. 18 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Monument Lab.

“Of Thee We Sing” by vanessa german is the artist’s answer to a question put to six nationally acclaimed artists — and by extension the rest of us — “What stories remain untold on the National Mall?”

Running through Sept. 18, german’s newly installed work uses opera singer Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert as a prompt to engage the American imagination in serious reflections about who is and isn’t embraced in our national narrative.

The installation’s central figure is an abstracted, figurative version of Marian Anderson in a 6-foot-long skirt covered with cobalt blue bottles so that, in german’s poetic description, “It’s a textured landscape of this vibrant neon lightning blue that rises up to a fiberglass sculpted torso that is representative of one of the gowns she wore at her Met concert.

“The trim of the [skirt] are glass musical notes to the song ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.’ Her arms are outstretched at the point she reaches the crescendo of the song,” german says. “Her head is a cube polished to a mirror shine with three images of her likeness. The top of the mirrored cube are a series of cobalt blue bottles and one single sculptured hand that rises up and is the highest point of the piece.”

The back of the polished cube features Anderson’s beautiful eyes in isolation, a detail that caught even the artist by surprise when it was in its fabrication stage.

Rising from the platform are metal hands polished to a mirror shine. Images taken from archival footage of the crowd that day are dye bonded to the platform’s surface so that onlookers see both the crowd and themselves in the mirrored hands.

Photo courtesy of the Monument Lab.

“When I saw it for the first time, I almost cried,” german says. “To go from all of our flat designs and looking at materials and then just to see it. I was like, my god; I didn’t have any idea, because you can’t until it becomes physical.

“It is beautiful. It does have a sense of aesthetic arrest.”

She’s especially pleased with the saturated field of colors as it contrasts with the miles of granite at the mall. It is a flourishing, vibrant presence in comparison.

One design element german is particularly proud of is the inclusion of representation of the Sandhof Lilies of Namibia in the piece. The African lilies bloom in mud flats every few years only under a constellation of perfect climate conditions.

The artist also points out that enslaved Africans built the White House and many of the memorials, so their DNA is an essential part of what everyone experiences today.

The installation, which is weatherproof and fabricated to endure “even climate change” is positioned steps away from the Lincoln Memorial where Anderson sang, but isn’t meant to be a mere tribute or memorial to that groundbreaking Easter morning performance witnessed by an estimated 75,000 people at the height of Jim Crow after the opera singer was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin.

“The National Mall is quite a solemn place,” german says. “The central engine of my creative practice is love. I wanted to make a monument to the human heart. For me, that is what is missing from the National Mall.”

She had heard about Anderson’s Easter concert, of course, but it wasn’t until she had held it “inside of me for the couple of weeks we had after we found out we were the artists on the project,” that she began to actualize a vision of something that would transcend protest art.

“I spent time with that concert and looked at archival footage and the thing that spoke to me as a monument to the human heart was the crowd,” german says.

vanessa german
vanessa german addresses Marian Anderson’s exile from Constitution Hall, but subsequent triumph at the Lincoln Memorial where she was allowed to sing to an audience of thousands. Photo courtesy of Monument Lab.

“[Anderson’s] voice is a brilliant, genius, miraculous sound. People were aware of that, but her body was refused from Constitution Hall,” she says. “Constitution Hall had room for maybe 3,000 people and she ended up singing in front of 75,000 who clamored for her. The pictures were like a Covid nightmare,” she adds wryly.

“One image, in particular, spoke to me,” she says. “It looks like that farmer from ‘American Gothic,’ an old craggy white man in his Easter Sunday suit next to a little Black boy with a flat cap on who would’ve been cast in an August Wilson play … next to some Black women with their church hats and next to some more white men and their white families. People didn’t care. You have a chance to listen to this miracle for free? Put on your Sunday best. We’re going to stand wherever we can stand.

“So, literally, as far as the eye can see, it is people gathered together who are focused on bearing witness to something they know will be momentous in their lives. They’re not going to walk away with a million dollars, but they’re going to walk away having experienced something that is transcendent and speaks to their heart and soul. They didn’t care who they sat or stood next to as long as they were within the [range] of her voice … as long as they were there.

“She ended up singing for all the dignitaries, the president of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt and even the women who refused her body [to perform at Constitution Hall]. When I think about what’s missing from the National Mall, it’s that story.”

Photo courtesy of Monument Lab.

“Of Thee We Sing” is part of “Pulling Together,” the pilot exhibition of the Beyond Granite initiative presented by the Trust for the National Mall in partnership with the National Capital Planning Commission. The show is curated by Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet of the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab.

The other artists on the mall are: Tiffany Chung (“For the Living” at Constitution Gardens -West near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial); Wendy Red Star (“The Soil You See …” at Constitution Gardens); Derrick Adams (“America’s Playground: DC” at Constitution Gardens – East); Ashon T. Crawley (“HOMEGOING” at the Washington Monument – South Grounds); and Paul Ramírez Jonas (“Let Freedom Ring” at the Smithsonian Metro – 12th Street North).

“The whole National Mall will be treated differently [for this exhibit],” german says. “It will be treated like an active museum with docents, tours and tent set-ups. It will be a total activation of the National Mall. This is a radically different activation of the space.”

She advises visitors to sink into each piece and listen carefully to the stories each one tells. “Give yourself the space and time to dream,” she says. “Dreaming is such an important part of being a citizen.”

Pittsburghers who can’t make it to Washington, D.C. in the next month can look forward to seeing “Of Thee We Sing” at the Frick Art Museum in September shortly after it closes at the National Mall. german will also have a retrospective of her work at the Frick in 2025.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.