Venice Biennale: “Simone Leigh: Sovereignty,” U.S. Pavilion, 2022

 

A TOWERING SCULPTURE pays homage to the ritual performances of the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast. Face jugs made by enslaved and free African Americans in the Edgefield District of South Carolina inspired a five-foot-tall vessel embellished with outsized forms that read as cowrie shells. A bronze figure installed in a reflecting pool references a late-19th century photograph of a Jamaican laundress at work. The deeply researched sculptures are part of a new body of work by Simone Leigh on view in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy.

Over the past two decades, Leigh has been developing a singular practice dedicated to Black female subjectivity. Best known for her ceramic and bronze sculptures, her symbolic and conceptual forms invoke the female body, African sculpture, and vernacular architecture.

Leigh is debuting her work on the world stage at the oldest and most prestigious international exhibition. The U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale first opened in May 1930. Nearly a century later, Leigh is the first Black female artist to represent the United States with a solo show in the U.S. Pavilion and also the first artist whose presentation is devoted to figurative representations of Black women.

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Last Garment,” 2022 (bronze, 54 × 58 × 27 inches / 137.2 × 147.3 × 68.6 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 

“Simone Leigh: Sovereignty” features all new works that directly reference a spectrum of cultures and histories. The exhibition brochure provides details about these connections and insight about the show’s title, which speaks to self-determination and “notions of self-governance and independence, for both the individual and the collective,” emphasizing that “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.”

The 59th Venice Biennale was originally scheduled for 2021. Delayed a year, due to the the pandemic, Leigh’s long-awaited and much-anticipated presentation officially opens to the public today. The exhibition features 11 works: a 24-minute film that captures Leigh at work in the studio, a meditation on “care, labor, and creation”; eight sculptures displayed inside the pavilion; a towering female figure installed outside in the front courtyard; and the pavilion itself.

Leigh transformed the pavilion’s white columned, Palladian-style architecture by embellishing the facade of the structure with thatched roofing. The concept channels a West African palace. Leigh told The New York Times, “It has an over-the-top Blackness that I really like.” CT

 

“Simone Leigh: Sovereignty” is on view in the U.S. Pavilion in The Gardini at the Venice Biennale, from April 23-Nov. 27, 2022. 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, the presentation is co-curated by Jill Medvedow and Eva Respini

 

GOLDEN LION Simone Leigh is also among the artists featured in “Milk of Dreams,” the Venice Biennale’s international exhibition curated by Cecilia Alemani. On April 23, Leigh received the Golden Lion for the Best Artist in the International Exhibition. Her prize-winning contribution (a monumental bronze sculpture titled “Brick House,” 2019) was described by the jury as “rigorously researched, virtuosically realized, and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening to the Arsenale…”

 


Simone Leigh, 2021. | Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 

Born in Chicago, Leigh lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is the first Black woman to present a solo exhibition in the U.S. Pavilion, and the third Black artist in a row to do so, following the selections of Mark Bradford (2017) and Martin Puryear (2019). Leigh keeps a studio in Brooklyn and works with Stratton Sculpture Studios, a foundry in Philadelphia, Pa., where her large-scale works are realized.

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Cupboard,” 2022 (raffia, steel, and glazed stoneware, 135 1/2 × 124 × 124 inches / 344.1 × 315 × 315 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


Installation view of SIMONE LEIGH, “Sphinx,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 29 3/4 × 56 3/4 × 35 inches / 75.6 × 144.1 × 88.9 cm). Shown in background, “Cupboard,” 2022. | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


Simone Leigh in 2021 working on “Sharifa” (2022). | Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 


SIMONE LEIGH, In progress detail of “Sharifa” (2022). | Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 

Leigh’s work universally references Black women. “Sharifa” (2022) is the first portrait the artist has made depicting a specific subject. The work was modeled after author and scholar Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a close friend who has written about Leigh’s work.

 


SIMONE LEIGH, Detail of “Sharifa,” 2022 (bronze, 111 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 40 1/2 inches / 283.2 × 103.5 × 102.9 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


SIMONE LEIGH, Detail of “Sharifa,” 2022 (bronze, 111 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 40 1/2 inches / 283.2 × 103.5 × 102.9 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


Simone Leigh in 2021 working on “Jug” (2022). | Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 


SIMONE LEIGH, Detail of “Jug,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 62 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 45 3/4 inches / 158 × 103.5 × 116.2 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 

In an 1882 photograph titled “The Wilde Woman of Aiken,” James A. Palmer (1825-1896), a white American photographer, captured a Black woman seated next to a table where an Edgefield face jug sits. The historic jug serves as a reference for Leigh’s “Jug” (2022) work.

    From the exhibition brochure: “The jug in the photograph is the first known image of a face vessel, a type of object made in the American South by both enslaved and freed African Americans in Edgefield District, South Carolina, a region renowned for the production of utilitarian stoneware. These enigmatic face vessels might have functioned in ritual or religious practices, or as coded objects that disguised hidden meanings.…

    “Leigh’s sculpture departs from the traditional vessels in significant ways, most emphatically through scale (more than five-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.”

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Jug,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 62 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 45 3/4 inches / 158 × 103.5 × 116.2 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


Simone Leigh in 2021 working on “Sentinel” (2022). | Artworks © Simone Leigh. Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Sentinel,” 2022 (bronze, 194 × 39 × 23 1/4 inches / 492.8 × 99.1 × 59.1 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 

Leigh’s presentation is anchored by “Sentinel” (2022), which stands more than 16-feet tall at the center of the pavilion in the rotunda gallery, essentially “watching over” the exhibition and serving as an “observant presence.”

    From the exhibition brochure: “The sculpture references an important genre of African diasporic artwork called power objects. Taking different forms—many of them anthropomorphic—power objects play an essential role in spiritual life and are believed to possess inherent divine energy and knowledge.”
 


SIMONE LEIGH, Profile view of “Sentinel,” 2022 (bronze, 194 × 39 × 23 1/4 inches / 492.8 × 99.1 × 59.1 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Last Garment,” 2022 (bronze, 54 × 58 × 27 inches / 137.2 × 147.3 × 68.6 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 

Installed in the first gallery in an expansive reflecting pool, “Last Garment” (2022), pictured above and at the top of the page, is derived from an image taken by Carlton Harlow Graves (1867–1943), a white American photographer also known as C.H. Graves. Titled “Mammy’s Last Garment, Jamaica” (1879), the late 19th century image captures a laundress hunched over, hard at work. Leigh referenced the photograph and worked with the live model to create the sculpture in modeling clay (including more than 800 rosettes for the figure’s hair), before casting it in bronze.

 


SIMONE LEIGH, Detail of “Anonymous,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 72 1/2 × 53 1/2 × 43 1/4
inches / 184.2 × 135.9 × 109.9 cm). Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Façade,” 2022 (thatch, steel, and wood, dimensions variable. Shown with “Satellite,” 2022 (bronze, 24 feet × 10 feet × 7 feet 7 inches / 7.3 × 3 × 2.3 m) (overall).| Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 

Leigh used thatch, steel, and wood to transform the exterior of the U.S. Pavilion. “Façade” (2022) is informed by venues at the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, where the Cameroon/Togo exhibition was presented in the Grand Pavilion and Belgian Congo exhibition was on view in the Transport Pavilion. The architecture of the pavilions, including thatched roofing, is documented in vintage postcard images.

A statuesque, bronze sculpture standing 24 feet high, “Satellite” (2022) is installed in the exterior forecourt with “Façade” serving as an ideal backdrop.

    From the exhibition brochure: “(Satellite) recalls a traditional D’mba (also called nimba), a headdress shaped like a female bust, created by the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast and used during ritual performances to communicate with ancestors. Alongside other African sculptures and masks, D’mbas were a source of fascination for European modernists, including Pablo Picasso, who owned one. This interest typified colonialist attitudes, which valued such objects for their aesthetics rather than for their original functions, and considered them in service to a European art-historical canon.…

    “Monumental and rendered in bronze, Satellite presents the body at architectural scale. The legs become architectonic columns, and the figure is tall enough for visitors to pass under, creating an intimate space. In place of the head typically found on a traditional D’mba headdress, Leigh tops her sculpture with a cast satellite dish, which, with its capacity for transmitting and receiving, echoes the D’mba’s function as a communicative conduit.”

 


SIMONE LEIGH, “Martinique,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 60 3/4 × 41 1/4 × 39 3/4 inches / 154.3 × 104.8 × 101 cm). | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


SIMONE LEIGH, Installation view of “Martinique,” 2022 (glazed stoneware, 60 3/4 × 41 1/4 × 39 3/4 inches / 154.3 × 104.8 × 101 cm). Shown in background, “Cupboard, 2022. | Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

 


Exhibition co-curators Jill Medvedow and Eva Respini introduce “Simone Leigh: Sovereignty” on view in the U.S. Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. | Video by ICA Boston

 

FIND MORE In the United States, ICA Boston is organizing Leigh’s first major survey in 2023. The exhibition will be documented by a new publication and feature works from her Venice Biennale presentation. The exhibition will travel to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (Fall/Winter 2023-24), and also go to Los Angeles, where it will be presented jointly by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and California African American Museum (CAAM) in Spring/Summer 2024.

 

BOOKSHELF
Simone Leigh’s Venice Biennale presentation is accompanied by a exhibition brochure. A new monograph will be published on the occasion of Leigh’s forthcoming 2023 survey organized by ICA Boston. Leigh won the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s 2018 Hugh Boss Prize (which included an exhibition at the New York City museum) and is featured, along with the shortlisted artists, in “The Hugo Boss Prize 2018,” and “For Her Own Pleasure and Edification,” an essay by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts was distributed in newspaper format at the Guggenheim exhibition. The recently published volume “A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See” by Tina M. Campt and “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz,” both feature Leigh. Cafritz was an early collector of Leigh’s work. Also consider “Art’s Biggest Stage: Collecting the Venice Biennale, 2007–2019” and “From Cameroon to Paris: Mousgoum Architecture In and Out of Africa” by Steven Nelson.

 

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