Simone Leigh at Stratton Sculpture Studios in Philadelphia, Pa., where she’s produced monumental works (2020). | Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis, Courtesy ICA Boston

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired a major sculpture by Simone Leigh and the artist will be in conversation at the museum this weekend

WHEN SHE WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind., Simone Leigh secured an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, D.C., where she was determined to learn all she could about African pots.

That was some time ago. In the three decades since, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Leigh has established an internationally recognized sculptural practice centered around Black feminist thought and the experiences of Black women. Her sculptures, often monumental in scale, combine the female figure, domestic vessels, and African architectural forms.

In 2022. Leigh represented the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale, presenting “Sovereignty,” a solo show in the U.S. Pavilion. She was the first Black female artist to do so and in the process transformed the pavilion’s white columned, Palladian-style architecture. Embellishing the facade with thatched roofing, she envisioned a West African palace, telling The New York Times, “It has an over-the-top Blackness that I really like.”

Leigh’s work was also featured in The Milk of Dreams, the biennale’s central exhibition, earning her the Golden Lion for Best Participant, the highest prize at the prestigious international event.

A version of Leigh’s Venice exhibition is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston through Sept. 4. The first comprehensive survey of the artist, the show is effectively a mid-career retrospective. 29 key works made throughout her career in ceramic, bronze, and video are on view, including nine from the U.S. Pavilion.


Proposed installation of “Sentinel” (2022) by SIMONE LEIGH in the National Gallery of Art East Building Atrium. | Visualization Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


Now the celebrated artist is returning to Washington, along with her work. The National Gallery of Art acquired a major sculpture by Leigh, she is featured in a new publication from the museum, and is also scheduled to participate in a special film program and discussion at the museum on Sunday (Aug. 6).

THIS WEEK, THE NATIONAL GALLERY announced the acquisition of “Sentinel” (2022), a major sculpture by Leigh. The bronze work is a new edition of the 16-foot-tall sculpture installed at the center of the U.S. Pavilion’s rotunda gallery for Leigh’s Venice exhibition. The brochure that accompanied “Sovereignty” explained the significance of the statuesque work:

    [Sentinel] 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. Leigh’s sculpture combines an elongated female form with an object traditionally used in fertility rituals, associ- ating the femme body as a tool or site of labor and consumption. The work’s title, which denotes the act of watching over, casts the figure as an observant presence within the exhibition.

In September, “Sentinel” will go on view in the National Gallery’s East Building atrium. The acquisition was publicized Thursday, days before Leigh is participating in COMPLETA: Black Women, Black Art, and the Centennial of 16mm Film at the museum.


SIMONE LEIGH, MADELEINE HUNT-EHRLICH, Still from “Conspiracy” 2022 (video, black-and-white, sound; 24:00 minutes, dimensions variable). Shown, artist Lorraine O’Grady. | Courtesy the artists and Matthew Marks Gallery


The film and discussion program “presents a historical continuum of Black women creating novel forms in the cinematic arts” and features three short films: “Monangambee” (1969, 17 minutes) by Sarah Maldoror, “one of the earliest Black women to pick up a film camera and use it as a weapon in the revolutionary struggle in Africa in the 1960s”; “Diary of an African Nun” (1977, 15 minutes) by Julie Dash; and “Conspiracy” (2022, 24 minutes) by Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, which was featured in the Venice exhibition.

Following the screenings, Leigh will be in conversation with writer Yasmina Price, a Yale Ph.D., student in the Departments of African American Studies and Film and Media Studies. Greg de Cuir Jr., is moderating the discussion. de Cuir curated the film program and is co-founder and artistic director of Kinopravda Institute in Belgrade, Serbia.

FINALLY, A NEW BOOK published by the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World,” considers the work of several prominent artists, including Leigh. An essay authored by CASVA Director Steven Nelson references her brief tenure at NMAfA:

    During her time as a student at Earlham College, the artist happened on a book called Nigerian Pottery. Compiled by British anthropologist Sylvia Leith-Ross, the volume is a detailed catalog, including essays that provide cultural context, overviews of pottery techniques, and more than 500 illustrations. Leigh was particularly struck by the water pots.

    “Many of them,” she has said, “are perfect formally.” Wanting to learn how to make similar pots, Leigh secured an internship at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and “[xeroxed] everything I could find on making an African pot.” She noted that many of the pots she studied had rounded bottoms and could balance on uneven surfaces.


Published in May by the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World” includes an essay on Simone Leigh authored by CASVA Director Steven Nelson


In a New Yorker profile published last year, Calvin Tompkins also mentioned Leigh’s experience at the Smithsonian museum, which was encouraged by Michael Thiedeman, a professor at Earlham who introduced her to working with clay. Tompkins wrote:

    Leigh had taken a ceramics class in high school, but it hadn’t caught her interest. In Thiedeman’s beginners’ class, the attraction was immediate. She had no interest in learning how to use the potter’s wheel. “I was working with her on a simple coil pot, and bang! It took,” Thiedeman told me. “From then on, my work was Simone. Simone was a blessing. She was so full of life, full of spirit, full of humor. She discovered who she was and where she was headed—she was always going to make sculptures, not utilitarian vessels. I encouraged her to apply for a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She got it, and for two months she was surrounded by African vessels—great, voluminous forms, which I think were crucial to her development.” (Leigh also read Sylvia Leith-Ross’s book “Nigerian Pottery,” which made a deep impression.) “She was a wonderful student, and a truly remarkable human being,” Thiedeman said.

Leigh is having a moment in Washington, where some of the central themes of her practice took root. There is more to come. This fall, her ICA Boston survey travels to the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which is near NMAfA and just across the grand lawn of the National Mall from the National Gallery of Art. The exhibition opens Nov. 3. CT


FIND MORE Next month, the National Gallery of Art is hosting a “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World” discussion and book signing with co-editor Huey Copeland and contributing author Kellie Jones, moderated by Steven Nelson (Sept. 30, 2023).


“Simon Leigh,” a new monograph is being published to accompany the artist’s traveling exhibition and first comprehensive survey. Coming soon, the volume is expected to be released in October. In “Black Modernisms in the Transatlantic World,” illustrated essays by 10 leading scholars explore the work of artists Simone Leigh, Roy DeCarava, Ben Enwonwu, James Hampton, Norman Lewis, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage, and Carrie Mae Weems. Also consider, “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.” The exhibition catalog includes a brief interview with Leigh whose work is featured in the traveling show, which opens Aug. 26 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor. In addition, Leigh is among the artists who contributed to “Fired Up! Ready to Go!: Finding Beauty, Demanding Equity: An African American Life in Art. The Collections of Peggy Cooper Cafritz.”


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