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Hugo Boss Prize exhibition featuring new works by Simone Leigh opens at Guggenheim Museum
Installation view: The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April 19–October 27,2019. Photo: David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

NEW YORK, NY.- An exhibition of new work by artist Simone Leigh, winner of the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Leigh’s presentation includes new sculptures and a sound installation, as well as a printed broadsheet by cultural historian Saidiya Hartman and a film program featuring works by the artist and by director Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. Selected by a jury of international critics and curators, Leigh is the twelfth artist to receive the biennial prize, which was established in 1996 to recognize significant achievement in contemporary art.

The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat is organized by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, with Amara Antilla, Assistant Curator.

Over the course of a career that spans the mediums of sculpture, video, and social practice, Leigh has continuously and insistently centered on the black female experience. Her sculptural forms, rendered in materials such as ceramic, raffia, and bronze, unify a timeless beauty with valences that are both deeply personal and piercingly political. In this exhibition, on view in the Guggenheim’s Tower Level 5 gallery, Leigh layers form, sound, and text to fashion narratives of resilience and resistance. Loophole of Retreat, the title of the project and related public program, is a phrase drawn from the writings of Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved abolitionist who in 1861 pseudonymously published an account of her struggle to achieve freedom, including the seven years she spent hiding from her master in a tiny crawl space beneath the rafters of her grandmother’s home. This act of defiant fortitude, which forged a “loophole of retreat” from an unjust reality, serves as a touchstone for Leigh’s long-standing commitment to honoring the agency of black women and their power to inhabit worlds of their own creation.

In a suite of new sculptures, Leigh merges the human body with domestic vessels or architectural elements that evoke unacknowledged acts of female labor and care. These works summon the ancient archetype of the nude statue and inflect it with folk traditions from across the African diaspora as well as with historical references ranging from bronzes produced in the Benin kingdom (present-day Nigeria) to the portraiture of seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. As such, they emerge from what the artist refers to as a process of “formal creolization,” channeling the cultural fluidity that is a legacy of colonialism. The faces of Leigh’s bronze sculptures are depicted without eyes, while another work features an abstracted torso assembled from a clay pipe. This refusal of a reciprocal gaze endows each figure with a resolute autonomy.

Leigh’s prevailing themes of self-determination and communal caretaking are expanded upon in a sound installation that emanates from the back of the gallery. A concrete structure, composed of breeze-block walls characteristic of vernacular buildings throughout the Global South, recalls both a prison cell and a shrine. A sound montage echoes through the space, layering musical samples with other elements, including recordings of a recent protest at a Brooklyn prison and news coverage of the 1985 fatal police bombing of the residence of MOVE, a Philadelphia-based black revolutionary organization. Created in collaboration with experimental musician Moor Mother, this work of “sonic protection,” as Leigh terms it, pays homage to a member of MOVE who was incarcerated in 1978 while eight-months pregnant. After she secretly delivered her son, her fellow prisoners sang and made distracting sounds to conceal his arrival from the guards, ultimately granting the new mother a few precious days with her baby. Within Leigh’s installation sits a ceramic sculpture—a medium that has been central to the artist since the outset of her career. Echoing the expansive skirts seen in the central gallery, this bell-like form is adorned with a woven motif that resembles braided hair or sutures in skin.

The narrative of Harriet Jacobs is one of many evoked by cultural historian Saidiya Hartman in a new text that grew out of a dialogue with Leigh. Available in the gallery as a takeaway broadsheet designed by artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Hartman’s “Notes for the Riot” renders a rich poetics of black feminist revolt and transcendence, one that reverberates throughout the exhibition.

An accompanying film program in the museum’s New Media Theater includes works by the artist and by director Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. Drawing upon the history of the United Order of Tents—a clandestine organization of black women nurses founded in the 1840s by individuals involved in the Underground Railroad—these works explore notions of secrecy, visibility, and community. Leigh is currently producing a site-specific film conceived as a meditation on the unique architectural form of the Guggenheim’s rotunda as it intersects with the themes of Loophole of Retreat. This new work will debut as an element of the film program during the run of the exhibition.

In October 2018 Leigh was selected as the winner of the Hugo Boss Prize from a short list of six finalists that also included Bouchra Khalili, Teresa Margolles, Emeka Ogboh, Frances Stark, and Wu Tsang. The members of the 2018 jury were Dan Fox, Editor-at-Large, Frieze magazine; Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, Director, Witte de With, Rotterdam; the late Bisi Silva, former Artistic Director, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos; Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and Joan Young, Director, Curatorial Affairs, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The 2018 jury was chaired by Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

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