A grand golden lady guards the entrance to Simone Leigh’s widely anticipated first museum survey, now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. The sculpture looks similar to many of her best-known creations. In it, a woman’s torso emerges from a bell-shaped raffia skirt. Her face is clean of emotion, and her eyes are missing, a statement that the following works are unbothered by scrutiny.
In choices of material, mass, and form, Leigh gestures to a wealth of historical periods, locations, and artistic traditions that center Black female experiences. Some of her references are implicit; most are layered and oblique. Leigh liberated herself long ago from having to educate the ignorant—an obligation surely familiar to most people of color. The sculptures here nod to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the nimba headdresses made by women of the Guinea coast, and South Carolina pottery, among much more.
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The poise and power of these works is immediate, but it takes time to decode Leigh’s art. That’s the point, though: she is thinking through lineages that span centuries but have been largely denied a proper place in the historical record.
Leigh, 56, is among the most famous contemporary sculptors working today—she was given the Hugo Boss Prize in 2018, participated in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and did the United States Pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale, which won her the Golden Lion. Those are tough acts to follow up, but her ICA show lives up to the hype.
Many of the bronzes and ceramics on display will be familiar to anyone who visited her Venice Biennale pavilion, which made her the first Black woman to represent the US. The curator of the ICA Boston show—Eva Respini, with assistance from Anni Pullagura—has paired these works with older sculptures and installations to demonstrate how experience refined Leigh’s argument and technique.
“This exhibition really makes the argument for an artist working at the height of her powers,” Respini, deputy director of curatorial affairs and chief curator at the ICA, said during the press preview.
One work that made the trip from Venice to Boston, Cupboard (2022), consists of a soaring raffia hut topped with a stoneware cowrie shell. Speaking about the piece, Leigh said it invokes traditional dwellings in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. It also alludes to Mammy’s Cupboard, a Mississippi restaurant in the shape of the titular stereotype. Since she started making art in the 1990s, Leigh has been concerned with non-Western, Black female stories and celebrates, sometimes through surreal means, their cultural intersections. Histories don’t happen in a vacuum, Leigh suggests. They flow and crash into one another.
Leigh said she drew on the scholarship of Saidiya Hartman for her Venice presentation. In her influential writings, Hartman rejects what she calls the colonial archive, which illuminates little of their interiority of enslaved people, queer people, and Black women. Given the gaps in records on these people, Hartman has made leaps of imagination to paint a fuller picture.
Leigh, in her more biting pieces, similarly conjures characters who stand in for the silenced. The bronze sculpture Last Garment (2022), installed toward the end of the show, is inspired by a nineteenth century souvenir photograph of a Jamaican laundress living in the colonized British West Indies. In Last Garment, the water is crisp as a clean mirror and reflects Boston Harbor, which is visible from a large window. The woman looks at the water, not us—she hides her thoughts.
“It’s one of these things that happens a lot in my research where it involves you having to look at your own debasement via anthropology, or via a lot of different media made in America,” Leigh said. “That’s both beautiful and involves a kind of racism that I don’t want to perpetuate [in my practice].”
This is heavy art, symbolically but also materially. You can even see Leigh’s works balloon in size as her practice matures. It’s like observing conviction take root and blossom.
Her recent works, made in her Brooklyn studio with the help of assistants, share a certain pristine quality. The surfaces are sleek, and the colors mostly unfussy (black, white, gray). Anger and sorrow are streamlined.
In contrast, the early works from the 2000s have the unvarnished energy of a demo tape, and I mean that as a compliment. There are small-scale ceramics glazed and fired in blinding yellow and blue. One resplendent face jug, Head with Cobalt, testifies to her mastery of the firing techniques developed by potters in South Carolina. She added salt to the kiln, creating a tactile, glossy coating.
The oldest piece in the show is White Teeth (for Ota Benga), 2004, comprising rows of porcelain “teeth” that jut from a metal case. The impression is of stalactites or an alligator’s jaws. The work was “made on the kitchen table when I had a really young child, and when I realized that I wasn’t going to stop making these things and I had to declare myself an artist,” Leigh explained.
White Teeth was inspired by the life of Ota Benga, an enslaved man remembered for being displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904 and then the Bronx Zoo. His teeth had been unwillingly sharpened like an animal’s. Shortly after being freed, he died by suicide.
The work represents “my very fraught relationship to anthropology, the World’s Fair, [and] the display of the Black body which oftentimes, in the case of Ota Benga … led to his demise,” Leigh said. She has a “fraught” relationship to anthropology and the World Fair, and to “the display of the Black body,” which in the case of Ota Benga led to his demise.
Leigh sounded tired talking about Benga. Like she said, this is toxic anthropology. Given that she has decades of art-making ahead (barring the unexpected), she’s had to learn how to exorcise the evil. For example, she worked for months on a ceramic series based on an 1882 staged photograph taken by a white photographer in South Carolina who made the sort of degrading postcards also referenced in Last Garment.
It depicts a woman seated near a face jug that is growing sunflowers and is a bit elaborate, conceptually: the image is based on a caricature of Oscar Wilde created after he visited the United States that year. Wilde is depicted as a monkey, then as a Black woman in a miasmic mix of homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Leigh reinterpreted the tableaux in two works, a face jug whose features are abstracted into cowrie shells and a bell-shaped female figure titled Anonymous. She’s reaching as if to shield her face from voyeurs. But the inhumanity, even in this abstracted fashion, weighed on Leigh.
Last year, she made a paper-mâché and raffia version of Anonymous and set it ablaze on the Red Hook waterfront. The scene was inspired by the burning of an effigy known as Vaval during Carnival as it is celebrated in Martinique, and it is the climax of Conspiracy (2022), a short film by Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. It wasn’t a lonely scene; the artist Lorraine O’Grady served as a witness.
Leigh said she felt relief as the figure was consumed and ruined by fire. A charred scent likely lingered in the air, but the monument was reduced to dust and dismissed by the wind. Then she walked back to her studio.
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