Initially, Simone Leigh’s exhibition in the United States Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale was to be titled “Grittin’,” a vernacular term suggesting protective determination. Not long before the opening, Leigh changed the title to “Sovereignty.” You come to know why even before entering the stately Palladian structure, whose exterior she effectively obliterates with thatch that hangs low from the roof and a double colonnade of rough wooden beams. Leigh’s transfiguration of the deeply symbolic site, and the grace and force of the work she displays in it, are equally commanding.
Rather than any actual African building style, Leigh’s facade refers to a structure at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, a show that a group of French Surrealists—who made their own artistic (and commercial) uses of tribal artwork—challenged in a counter-exposition co-organized with the French Communist Party. Leigh has taken these several twisting threads of exploitation and advocacy and given them a seemingly conclusive turn, asserting ownership of imagery that, her work argues, is her rightful heritage.
Further to that end, Leigh has plunked a monumental bronze figure, patinaed a sleek black, in the building’s transformed forecourt. Titled Satellite and, like all works in the pavilion, dated 2022, the 24-foot-high figure is based on long-renowned D’mba ritual masks that have been collected by the likes of Pablo Picasso. For the Baga people of West Africa, these masks, worn for weddings, funerals, and agricultural festivals, represented vital female elders and the spirit of maternal nurturing, but they were worn, complicatingly, by young men, with the legs of the masks spanning their shoulders. Leigh has amplified and abstracted her source’s features, including flat drooping breasts that signify long years of nursing, and her version is big enough for anyone to stand beneath. Most radically, she replaced the head with a giant shallow bowl, tipped up—a powerful satellite dish for receiving and transmitting expressive signals.
This big dish extends a motif in Leigh’s work of eyeless or totally featureless heads. Sentinel, a tall slender figure in a small circular gallery at the pavilion’s center, is topped by another shallow vertical bowl; an oculus in the ceiling above becomes its halo. For Black Americans, especially women, the refusal or theft of recognition by white society can itself be considered an element of identity, an invisibility that Leigh has reciprocated with figures of impenetrability: their lips are sealed, their eyes shut tight. In 2019, at the time of her solo Hugo Boss award exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Leigh stated plainly that she was speaking first and foremost to Black female viewers, and challenged everyone else to do some homework before presuming to understand her work.
With “Sovereignty,” she shifts tactics, offering an installation brochure that makes some of her sources explicit, and implies others. She links Sentinel, for instance, to African power figures; the dish-head also seems a clear nod to Wangechi Mutu, a sculptor and friend whose regal caryatids for the facade of New York’s Metropolitan Museum featured polished bronze disks that obscured their faces or crowned their heads. Giacometti’s Spoon Woman is another inescapable association.
One of Leigh’s best-known earlier projects was a Free People’s Medical Clinic set up in Brooklyn in 2014, with sponsorship by Creative Time and the Stuyvesant Mansion. It provided HIV tests, blood pressure screenings, yoga classes, acupuncture, and other services. The United Order of Tents, a once secret society of Black female nurses founded by two former slaves in 1867 and still functioning, was one inspiration for the program; another was the free medical services the Black Panthers offered in the early 1970s. Leigh’s Waiting Room, a spin-off project at the New Museum in 2016, was similarly organized by and for Black women. Leigh now feels these efforts have been given too much prominence. Without question, they provoked discussion.
Responding to Waiting Room, Helen Molesworth wrote in Artforum: “To be honest, there was a time I would have felt Leigh’s call for exclusively black women to organize this event ‘problematic’ (I suppose I would have argued that it was ‘essentialist,’ while sidestepping my feelings of being left out).”
Molesworth changed her mind because she came to feel that the organizers’ independence was more important than inclusivity. And if Leigh’s tactics have changed, her priorities remain the same. Witness the “Loophole of Retreat,” an all-Black-women three-day conference, open to the public, that accompanies “Sovereignty.” Organized by Rashida Bumbray, culture and arts director of the Open Society Foundations, it will gather artists, writers, dancers, filmmakers, and scholars in Venice in October. (Leigh’s Hugo Boss show offered a symposium of the same title.) The titular phrase, from an 1861 memoir of slavery, is the author’s term for the crawlspace she hid in for seven years. But it also suggests, Leigh said at a press event in Venice, “enacting practices of freedom—thinking, planning, writing.” And making space for lyricism. In her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman, an adviser (along with theorist Tina Campt) to the conference, asks, “Who can fail to understand seeking a way out, a loophole of retreat” as “anything but beautiful?”
Among several “directives” Leigh followed for “Sovereignty,” she said, is Hartman’s notion of “critical fabulation,” by which information about largely unremarked young Black women is gleaned from a scanty historical record and woven, with the help of sympathetic imagination, into representations of complex individuals. Another important imperative for Leigh, who regards Hartman’s writing as a touchstone, is “creolization,” a hybrid use of language and form. Magical realism is a further directive. So, too, is an approach to medicine that combines the natural and the supernatural. In other words, Leigh’s work mixes up fact and fiction, citation and invention.
For instance, the imposing bronze sculpture Last Garment in the first gallery of the pavilion, which depicts a woman bent low to wash clothing on a rock set in an elegant black wading pool, is based partly on a degrading nineteenth-century Jamaican souvenir-postcard genre that features Black laundresses. Leigh reclaims the subject mainly by endowing the figure with physical dignity.
In the following room is a white stoneware jug more than five feet high, puckered with half a dozen raised lozenges—molded from watermelons—that are stylized versions of Leigh’s many sculptures resembling cowrie shells. The lozenges scarily evoke a riot of vaginas dentata, but the work also has a social and political backstory, starting with “face jugs” made secretly by slaves before the Civil War and openly by freed workers after it, vessels whose symbolism and uses remain enigmatic. Leigh’s jug shares space with a gleaming white stoneware female figure, big skirted and puffy sleeved, whose hands are folded in prayer or supplication, and whose face is eyeless. Her gesture is borrowed from an 1882 photograph of a seated Black woman, one of a series that waxes sentimental about “Plantation Life”; the photo in question also shows a face jug.
In its final gallery, “Sovereignty” holds a ghostly gray stoneware sphinx that surely nods to Kara Walker’s colossal woman-headed lion of 2014, along with a blazing blue stoneware figure, headless but proudly supporting her breasts with her hands. Last is another ceiling-brushing work, this one raffia-skirted—the raffia rhymes with the facade’s thatch—crowned with a stoneware cowrie shell. Sources for the domed skirts of Leigh’s figures include Indigenous dwellings and kitchens in Cameroon and Zimbabwe. In an interview with Nancy Kenney in the Art Newspaper, Leigh mentioned the skirts in Velázquez’s Las Meninas as well, and those worn by women in the Afro-Brazilian religious tradition of candomblé. Hardly least pertinent is Mammy’s Cupboard, a Mississippi restaurant in the form of the derogatory titular figure, inside whose skirt patrons eat. Says Leigh, “I thought the symbolic violence in this gesture of going to eat in someone’s skirt was really stunning.”
Leigh debuted her first video in Venice, the twenty-minute Conspiracy, which shares a gallery with another first, a full-length, over-life-size bronze portrait, facial features included, of friend and colleague Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, an award-winning nonfiction writer. Sharifa’s downcast eyes echo the tone of the video, which shows Leigh at work in her Brooklyn studio—the focus on hands, and manual labor, is key—and, more dramatically, torching a raffia-skirted sculpture, which burns to the ground. Among the onlookers at this dolorous ritual is performance artist Lorraine O’Grady, another friend and mentor, here looking especially majestic. Handsomely filmed by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Conspiracy helps consolidate Leigh’s control of her work’s reception.
This Biennale features Leigh’s work twice elsewhere, most conspicuously in the Arsenale, where curator Cecilia Alemani has given pride of place to Brick House (2019), which won Leigh the Golden Lion for that year’s best artist. The massive, bracingly stern bronze bust was first shown on the High Line in New York, for which Alemani directs the art program. Gracing a garden behind the Arsenale is Cupboard (2022), a wide-skirted, gold-patinaed bronze figure, armless but resplendent.
The re-enchantment of art is a central aim of Alemani’s Biennale, and its embrace of magic realism, and of non-Western—and female—approaches to spiritual and physical well-being, comports well with Leigh’s interests. Yet neither woman is blind to the urgencies of contemporary politics, and although spiritual wisdom seems to have stolen a march on rationalism in contemporary culture, Leigh’s work is most forceful, it seems to me, in its attention to fully factual racial and social injustice.
In a conversation with David Velasco in Artforum, Alemani rued the Giardini’s implicit endorsement of “the idea of the nation-state, a concept that always seems so obsolete, until the next invasion.” If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminds us of anything, it’s the danger of belief in a mythical national ethos. At the press event for “Sovereignty,” Eva Respini, co-commissioner of the exhibition with Jill Medvedow (they are, respectively, chief curator and director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which will exhibit the Venice works and others in a Leigh survey opening in March 2023 before a national tour), asked Leigh what it meant to her to represent the US. The artist replied, to cheers from the audience, “we need to get rid of the idea of nationalism if we’re going to move forward.”
But, she hastened to add, “as a child of immigrants”—her parents are Jamaican—“I do have an American experience.” And part of that experience has lately been spectacular success. Now represented by Matthew Marks after precipitously departing Hauser and Wirth, she has the means to run a big studio in Red Hook, to temporarily take over a foundry in Philadelphia that casts her bronzes from full-scale clay originals Leigh hand works herself, and to hire an architect to prepare the pavilion for her show, including reinforcing the floors.
Born in Chicago in 1967, Leigh attended Earlham College, a Quaker school, before turning to art. Like Theaster Gates, she used a commitment to manual work—they both began with ceramics—to forge (briefly, for her) a social practice. And, like Martin Puryear, whose work occupied the US pavilion in the last Biennale, in 2019, she educated herself about African craft traditions to reclaim them for contemporary purposes, while also staking her claim to ritual objects appropriated in formal terms by Cubism and symbolic ones by Surrealism.
All these choices reflect a spirit of resistance. For me, the most potent element of Leigh’s work is simmering, tight-lipped anger. Glimpsed briefly in the film’s torched sculpture, it’s fired up again in footage of a sculpture placed in a kiln. It’s on display too in the pavilion’s tinder-like thatch, in the bared teeth of the cowrie shells, and above all in the preponderance of shut-eyed figures that refuse to acknowledge a viewer’s presence.
In everything she does, Leigh seizes and redirects the force of cultural and social exclusion—though her present acclaim, of course, makes the stance paradoxical. Anger can be deforming; it often impedes communication. But it also powers the vital extremities of expression. At the Biennale, an international fairground for preening display and naked avarice, as well as honest curiosity and earnest artistic endeavor of the highest order, Leigh performs a formidable balancing act.
Works by Simone Leigh are on view at the Venice Biennale through Nov. 27.