Simone Leigh wins Golden Lion

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Simone Leigh wins Golden Lion
A thatched roof and wooden supports installed by Simone Leigh at the U.S. Pavilion at the 59th International Venice Biennale, April 6, 2022. The acclaimed sculptor holds court at the pavilion, where she explores the burden of colonial histories and the promise of Black feminism. Sarah van Rij/The New York Times.

VENICE.- For the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, the United States Pavilion presents Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Simone Leigh: Sovereignty features a new body of work made for the United States Pavilion. Characterized by an interest in performativity and affect, Leigh’s expansive practice parses the construction of Black femme subjectivity. Her large-scale sculptural works join forms derived from vernacular architecture and the female body, rendering them via materials and processes associated with the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. Sovereignty commingles disparate histories and narratives, including those related to ritual performances of the Baga peoples in Guinea, early Black American material culture from the Edgefield District in South Carolina, and the landmark 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. With a series of new bronzes and ceramics both outside and inside the Pavilion, Leigh intervenes imaginatively to fill gaps in the historical record by proposing new hybridities.

The works in Sovereignty collectively extend the artist’s ongoing inquiry into the theme of self-determination. The exhibition’s title speaks to notions of self-governance and independence, for both the individual and the collective. To be sovereign is to not be subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another’s gaze, but rather to be the author of one’s own history. Many of the featured sculptures interrogate the extraction of images and objects from across the African diaspora and their circulation as souvenirs in service of colonial narratives. Though Leigh’s figural works present their subjects as autonomous and self-sufficient, they do not simply celebrate the capacity of Black women to overcome oppressive circumstances, but rather indict the conditions that so often require them to affirm their own humanity. Acknowledging the capacity of Leigh’s work to articulate an expansive view of Black female experience, American author and scholar Saidiya Hartman has described the artist’s address of the Black feminine as “an architecture of possibility.” Hartman’s conception of “critical fabulation”—a strategy that invites historians, artists, and critics to creatively fill the gaps of history—provides a resonant framework for approaching Leigh’s work. “In order to tell the truth,” Leigh proposes, “you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact.”

Leigh's exhibition continues beyond the U.S. Pavilion with Loophole of Retreat: Venice, a convening of Black women scholars, performers, writers, and artists in October 2022, organized by Rashida Bumbray. The project reflects the collaborative ethos that is characteristic of Leigh’s practice, and pays homage to a long history of Black femme collectivity, communality, and care.

Lee Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said, “We congratulate Simone Leigh on her historic achievement as the first Black woman to represent the United States at the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. On this international stage, her work will be a beacon for American art. Simone Leigh's depiction of the reality, diversity, and complexity of the American experience will educate and inspire people around the globe."

Considering the U.S. Pavilion itself as a sculpture, Leigh has transformed its architecture with Façade, an installation of thatch roofing that resembles a 1930s West African palace. Leigh’s exterior intervention introduces contrasting forms and materials that carry their own histories and interact with the original neoclassical building. The gesture draws upon the legacy of the landmark 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, mounted by the French to display the cultures and peoples of the lands then under European colonial control.

Standing at the center of the U.S. Pavilion’s outdoor forecourt is Satellite, a monumental, 24-foot-high sculpture. The work recalls a traditional D’mba, a headdress shaped like a female bust created by the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast that is used during ritual performances to communicate with ancestors. A cast satellite dish tops the sculpture, echoing the D’mba’s function as a communicative conduit.

Entering the Pavilion’s galleries, visitors first encounter a large reflecting pool featuring Last Garment, a bronze depicting a laundress at work. The work references a late 19th century photograph taken in Jamaica titled Mammy’s Last Garment. Postcards bearing such imagery played a key role in supporting stereotypes created by the burgeoning Anglophone Caribbean tourism industry and these souvenirs formed a part of a visual economy that constituted an idea of Jamaica as imagined by its colonizers.

Two large works occupy the next gallery. In Anonymous, Leigh draws upon an 1882 photograph, titled The Wilde Woman of Aiken, depicting a Black woman seated at a table with an Edgefield face jug, an important example of early Black American material culture. The racist photograph was intended as a satire of Oscar Wilde and as a rejection of the poet’s aesthetic theory that anything can be beautiful. Leigh’s face jug is transposed nearby and enlarged to over 5 feet tall. Appended across the surface of the work are forms resembling cowrie shells the size and shape of the watermelons the artist uses as molds to generate them.

Sentinel, standing at the center of the rotunda gallery, references an important genre of African diasporic artwork called power objects, believed to possess inherent divine energy and knowledge. Leigh’s sculpture combines an elongated female form with an object traditionally used in fertility rituals. The work’s title, which denotes the act of watching over, casts the figure as an observant presence within the exhibition.

The sculpture Sharifa and the film Conspiracy are joined in a call and response in the Pavilion’s penultimate gallery. The film captures aspects of the sculpture’s making, and together, they expand on narratives of care, labor, and creation. Sculpted from life after the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa is the first portrait made by Leigh. Along with artist Lorraine O’Grady, Rhodes-Pitts is also featured in the film Conspiracy, made collaboratively with filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich.

Conceived as a chorus of figures, the group of works assembled in the final gallery are crafted in ceramic and raffia, two materials that have long been central to Leigh’s practice. Clay forms the basis of most of Leigh’s artworks—including her bronzes, which are all first sculpted in clay—and the artist pushes the medium’s possibilities through scale and method. Taken together, the works in this room demonstrate Leigh’s continued use of forms and processes that have traditionally been gendered and that send up essentialist ideas of the Black femme body.

The ICA is organizing Leigh’s first survey exhibition—including works from the U.S. Pavilion—and a major monograph to be presented in Boston in March 2023. Following its debut at the ICA, the exhibition will tour nationally to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (Fall/Winter 2023/24), and a joint presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and California African American Museum (CAAM) in Spring/Summer 2024 in Los Angeles, CA.

Over the past two decades, Simone Leigh (b. 1967, Chicago, IL) has created an expansive body of work in sculpture, video, and performance that centers Black femme interiority. Inflected by Black feminist theory, Leigh’s practice intervenes imaginatively to fill gaps in the historical record by proposing new hybridities. Leigh’s sculptural works join forms derived from vernacular architecture and the female body, rendering them via materials and processes associated with the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. The collaborative ethos that characterizes Leigh’s videos and public programs pays homage to a long history of Black female collectivity, communality, and care.

In 2019, Leigh was the first artist commissioned for the High Line Plinth, New York. Recent exhibitions include The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2019); the 2019 Whitney Biennial; Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon (2017) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Psychic Friends Network (2016) at Tate Exchange, Tate Modern, London; Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh (2016–17) at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; inHarlem: Simone Leigh (2016–17), a public installation presented by The Studio Museum in Harlem at Marcus Garvey Park, New York; The Waiting Room (2016) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; and Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014), a project commissioned by Creative Time. Leigh’s work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and the ICA/Boston, among others.

The works that comprise Leigh’s exhibition for the U.S. Pavilion will be featured in her first museum survey exhibition at the ICA in 2023, which will subsequently tour to museums throughout the United States. The exhibition will be accompanied by the first comprehensive monograph dedicated to Leigh’s work.

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