“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.” This conviction founds Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, the artist’s new body of work created for the U.S. Pavilion of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Leigh is the first Black woman to be awarded the prestigious commission.
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Comprised of towering bronze works and ceramics, the exhibition continues Leigh’s questions about self-determination, historical erasure, and Black femme subjectivity. She explores both interiority and what it means for Black women, who she’s repeatedly described as her primary audience, to move through the world.
While largely sculptural, Sovereignty opens with Leigh’s reinterpretation of the pavilion’s Palladian-style facade. A thatched roof and wooden columns cloak the stately architecture in reference to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, which celebrated French dominance and extracted and exoticized objects, images, and materials of African cultures. The Jamaican woman hunched over a mirrored pool in “Last Garment,” a depiction Leigh originally discovered on a vintage postcard, similarly rebukes colonialism and the negative stereotypes it perpetuates.
Inside are additional figurative works, including the soaring, abstract bronze piece titled “Sentinel,” which has a wide, sloping head and echoes the squat “Satellite” at the exhibition’s entrance. Evoking the artistic traditions within Africa and of the diaspora, many of the pieces address questions and themes that recur in Leigh’s practice, although they extend her oeuvre, as well. As with her earlier works, cowrie shells make an appearance, emerging from a large, ceramic jug and resting atop a raffia dome in “Cupboard.” The standing bronze “Sharifa,” on the other hand, depicts Leigh’s friend, the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and is the artist’s first portrait.
“In order to tell the truth, 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,” she says in a statement about Sovereignty, adding in her opening remarks that, “Black women and Black people in general across the diaspora … We often are getting information from someone who had a different intention than we have.”
In addition to Sovereignty, Leigh’s monumental bust “Brick House,” which was stationed at the High Line through May of 2021, is included in the Biennale’s international exhibition The Milk of Dreams, on view through November 27. “Brick House” also won a Golden Lion, the exhibition’s highest award.