THE UNITED STATES will be represented by Simone Leigh at the 59th Venice Biennale. It’s a historic choice. Leigh is the first Black female artist ever selected to stage a solo exhibition in the American Pavilion at the prestigious international exhibition and she is the third African American artist in row chosen for the opportunity.

Leigh’s sculptural practice focuses on Black female subjectivity and “explores and elevates ideas about history, race, gender, labor, and monuments, creating and reclaiming powerful narratives of Black women.” The artist will produce a new series of sculpture for the American Pavilion in Venice, Italy. The works will be on view April 23–Nov. 27, 2022.

 


Simone Leigh photographed at Stratton Sculpture Studios, 2020. | © Simone Leigh, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced Leigh’s selection today. The news was first reported this morning by The New York Times.

“I feel like I’m a part of a larger group of artists and thinkers who have reached critical mass,” Leigh told the Times. “And despite the really horrific climate that we’ve reached, it still doesn’t distract me from the fact of how amazing it is to be a Black artist right now.”

Originally scheduled for 2021, the next Venice Biennale was pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now planned for 2022, U.S. presentation of Leigh’s work is co-commissioned by Jill Medvedow, ICA director, and Eva Respini, chief curator at ICA. Subsequently, works from the biennale exhibition will be featured in a major solo show at ICA Boston in 2023. The exhibition is the first survey of Leigh’s work and it will be accompanied by the publication of her first monograph.

“I feel like I’m a part of a larger group of artists and thinkers who have reached critical mass. And despite the really horrific climate that we’ve reached, it still doesn’t distract me from the fact of how amazing it is to be a Black artist right now.” — Simone Leigh

“Over the course of two decades, Simone Leigh has created an indelible body of work that centers the experiences and histories of Black women and at such a crucial moment in history, I can think of no better artist to represent the United States,” Medvedow said in a statement. “The scale and magnificence of Leigh’s art demands visibility and power; it is probing, timely, and urgent. We are proud and honored to share this work with audiences from around the globe at the next Biennale in Venice.”

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Jug,” 2019 (bronze, Edition 1 of 3, 214.6 x 126 x 123.8 cm / 84 1/2 x 49 5/8 x 48 3/4 inches). | © Simone Leigh, © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Courtesy he artist and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo by David Heald

 

LEIGH, 52, IS BASED in Brooklyn, N.Y. She makes large- and small-scale sculptures composed of bronze, porcelain, terracotta, or stoneware. Some of her works take on hybrid forms combining the human figure with architectural silhouettes. She often employs raffia and motifs associated with African sculpture that reference spirituality and ceremony. Her contemporary works are realized by abstracting, minimizing or removing altogether the facial features on her sculptures in order to represent many ideas, histories, and experiences, rather than one individual.

Recognition of Leigh’s unique, longstanding practice has been on a sharp upward trajectory over the past several years. She has earned prizes, presented exhibitions, and her work has begun to appear at auction, setting new records.

In 2014, she participated in Creative Times’s “Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,” a walkable month-long art exhibition featuring four art commissions. Leigh presented the “Free People’s Medical Clinic.” In 2016, her exhibition, “Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room,” was on view at the New Museum in New York. The artist’s “Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh” presentation was at teh Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2016-17).

“The scale and magnificence of Leigh’s art demands visibility and power; it is probing, timely, and urgent.” — ICA Director Jill Medvedow

She was the recipient of The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in 2017, and then won the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, which was accompanied by an exhibition at the New York museum. “The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat” exhibition was on view from April to October 2019. In May 2019, Leigh was profiled on CBS This Morning.

The artist participated in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and she was selected for the inaugural High Line Plinth commission in New York. A monumental vision of a Black woman, Leigh’s “Brick House” installation opened to the public in June 2019. The bronze work stands 16-feet tall and can be visited on foot at the northern-most section of the High Line at 30th Street where it sits high atop the constant flow of traffic on 10th Avenue. “Brick House” will remain on view through spring 2021.

Along the way, she joined a so-called “mega” gallery. In May 2016, Luhring Augustine gallery announced its representation of Leigh. She moved to David Kordansky gallery in Los Angeles in May 2019 and in short order, after her Guggenheim exhibition and High Line debut, she joined Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s top art galleries with an international footprint. Leigh has been represented by Hauser & Wirth for nearly a year.

 


Installation view of SIMONE LEIGH, “Brick House” 2019. A High Line Plinth commission on the High Line at the Spur at 30th St. and 10th Ave. | Courtesy the High Line, Photo by Timothy Schenck

 

For the Venice Biennale, Leigh’s new body of work will be presented in a Palladian-style building that dates back to 1930. The neoclassical American Pavilion is located on the Giardini in the vicinity of other national pavilions.

Her new works will include a monumental bronze sculpture installed in the Pavilion’s outdoor forecourt. Inside, she will fill five galleries. The announcement described the series as “interrelated works in ceramic, bronze, and raffia, populating the gallery space with figurative representations for the first time in many years.”

LEIGH’S REPRESENTATION of the United States creates a remarkable legacy at the Venice Biennale. The international gathering has historically been held every two years and her selection follows two other Black artists. Los Angeles-based abstract painter Mark Bradford was chosen to represent the United States at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017). Sculptor Martin Puryear, who lives and works in upstate New York, was selected for the 58th, which occurred in 2019.

Leigh is the fifth Black artist to present a solo show in American Pavilion. Painter Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was the first Black artist to represent the United States with a solo exhibition in 1997. In 2003, New York-based multidisciplinary artist Fred Wilson was selected for the opportunity.

During her tenure, Leigh will provide an opportunity for the next generation. Her Venice commission includes a partnership with the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, a program based at Spelman College with a central focus on preparing future curators, art historians, and museum professionals to enter the art world. Both the artist and the ICA curators will collaborate with students, working closely on all aspects of the Venice exhibition. Leigh told the Times: “It’s one of my favorite parts of the project.” CT

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Las Meninas,” 2019 (terracotta, steel, raffia, porcelain, 182.9 x 213.4 x 152.4 cm / 72 x 84 x 60 inches). | © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and The Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo by Farzad Owrang

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “107 (Face Jug Series),” 2019 (salt-fired porcelain, 41.9 x 16.5 x 19.1 cm / 16 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches. | © Simone Leigh. Courtesy Private Collection. Photo by Farzad Owrang

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Jug,” 2019 (bronze, Edition 1 of 3, 214.6 x 126 x 123.8 cm / 84 1/2 x 49 5/8 x 48 3/4 inches). | © Simone Leigh, © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Courtesy he artist and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Photo by David Heald

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Hagar,” 2020 (glazed stoneware, 81.3 x 62.2 x 33 cm / 32 x 24 1/2 x 13 inches). | © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Dan Bradica

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Martinique,” 2020 (glazed Stoneware, 160 x 147.3 x 114.3 cm / 63 x 58 x 45 inches). | © Simone Leigh, Courtesy the artist. Photo by Elon Schoenholz

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “No Face (House),” 2020 (terracotta, porcelain, india ink, epoxy, and raffia, 74.9 x 61 x 61 cm / 29 1/2 x 24 x 24 inches). | Courtesy Private Collection, Promised gift, The Menil Collection. Photo by Dan Bradica

 

BOOKSHELF
Simone Leigh is featured in “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.” Cafritz was an early collector of Leigh’s work. The catalogs “Martin Puryear: Liberty / Libertà,” “Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day,” and “Fred Wilson: Speak Of Me As I Am: 50th Venice Biennale” were published to document the artists’s Venice Biennale presentations in the American Pavilion. Also consider, “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” which accompanies Colescott’s current traveling exhibition.

 

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