Introduction to the Issue

by Deanna Sirlin

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Simone Leigh, Satellite, 2022, Bronze, 24 feet × 10 feet × 7 feet 7 inches , Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery © Simone Leigh Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Simone Leigh

Sovereignty 

U.S. Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale

by Tanya Augsburg

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Simone Leigh: Façade, 2022. Thatch, steel, and wood, dimensions variable. Satellite, 2022. Bronze, 24 feet × 10 feet × 7 feet 7 inches  Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery © Simone Leigh

Photo  Deanna Sirlin 

Much is at stake these days over how American history gets written. In 2019 The New York Times published MacArthur Genius Award recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project, which shifts the nation’s origin date from 1776 to 1619, when African slaves were first brought to American soil. The 1619 Project additionally impugns prevailing hagiographies of patriots who fought for independence while conveniently leaving out how many of them, including Thomas Jefferson, owned and abused slaves. The architecture of the U.S. Pavilion in Venice’s Giardini reifies such narratives. Built in the 1930s to recall Jefferson’s Monticello house, the U.S. Pavilion was designed in the neoclassical Palladian style familiar to Venetians. 

The inimical implications of the U.S. Pavilion’s status as a cultural representation have not been lost on Simone Leigh, the first Black woman artist selected as the U.S. Venice Biennale representative. Protesting white supremacist cultural amnesia, Leigh fortifies herself with Black feminist theory and methodologies. Citing scholar Saidiya Hartman’s use of “critical fabulations,” Leigh transformed the U.S. Pavilion deploying aesthetic strategies that foreground what Jill Medvedow, the co-commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion, described during her introductory remarks at the exhibition preview as “adjacency” – that is, the adding, subtracting, rearranging, juxtaposing, and fusing together historical, mythical, and reclaimed imagery across geographies and historical periods. Leigh probes historical, ethnographic, and popular culture archives to critically re-examine the past. In so doing, she calls attention to Black femme subjectivities while safeguarding Black women’s autonomy, particularly with regard to their private thoughts, sentiments, and sexualities.

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

Born in 1967 to Jamaican immigrant parents, Leigh attended Earlham College, where she majored in art and philosophy. Her artistry visually translates her erudition in both art history and critical theory. Since winning the Hugo Ball Prize in 2018, Leigh has become well known for her sculptural figural hybrid bronzes that conjoin the female figure with architectural structures, domestic tools, or natural objects laden with symbolic meaning. She began her art career as a ceramicist and remains so at heart as she first molds clay models of her bronze sculptures in full scale. Her work, as Leigh has repeatedly stated, is about and for Black women, who, as her primary audience, can discern best the subtle nuances and plethora of cultural, historical, and mythical references. Leigh’s artistry aligns with Black feminist pedagogy that expects uninformed, particularly white, audiences to educate themselves on their own about the significations of her visual vocabulary.

Indeed, her transfiguration of the U.S. Pavilion demands that Venice Biennale attendees learn how art exhibitions have advanced racist and Eurocentric ideas about cultural traditions. Working with Italian architect Pierpaolo Martiradonna, Leigh installed Façade (2022), a brilliant pièce-de-resistance consisting of thatched roofs, wood columns, and hidden steel support structures above and in front of the Pavilion’s architectural elements. Converting the building into an African palace sends a strong enough message, but Leigh adds fuel to the fire by citing the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition’s Congo Pavilion, underscoring how African architecture has been both appropriated and belittled to further racist and colonialist aims. Standing on four legs, a 28-foot bronze rendition of one of the most recognizable pieces in African art history, the traditional African D’mba headdress, welcomes visitors to the forecourt. Leigh subverts expectations by replacing the head of the headdress with a satellite dish, hence its title Satellite (2022). 

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Simone Leigh, Last Garment, 2022, Bronze 54 × 58 × 27 inches 

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery © Simone Leigh  Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Upon entering the U.S. Pavilion’s first gallery, Room A, visitors are confronted with a lasting legacy of colonialism – exploitive tourism, which encourages tourists to “see” locals as exoticized or otherized service workers. A black marble pool takes up most of the floor space, requiring that visitors walk cautiously around it. Inside the pool, a solitary bronze female figure bends forward, her hands firmly pressing down some clothes on a rock. Its title, Last Garment (2022), informs visitors that they are looking at a woman concentrating intently on her work – or is she gazing intently at her own reflection? Leigh leaves it to viewers to resolve the ambiguities for themselves. Viewers also see their own reflections, catching themselves in the act of looking. Their scrutiny violates the privacy of the laboring woman. But there is a twist: The sculpture, it turns out, is Leigh’s reinterpretation of a late 19th-century photographic postcard featuring Jamaican washerwomen at work, undoubtedly to promote tourism. Instead of recreating the tourist gaze, Leigh turns it back onto itself. 

In Room B Leigh deconstructs a late 19th-century racist photograph of an African American woman seated next to a table with a face jug. Her head tilts slightly and rests on her hands in prayer or supplication. Leigh reimagines the jug and the woman as two large white glazed ceramic works each over five feet tall. The jug is recast as a larger-than-life truculent object. In place of a derisive countenance, hybrid watermelon-shaped objects with cowrie shell edges appear to be erupting. Their edges resemble razor teeth that guard their vulnerable center spaces. Given the plethora of significations of both cowrie shells and watermelons, the objects conjure up various associations of fertility, pregnant bellies, breasts, and – quite obviously – vagina dentatas. Its title Jug (2022) very likely is a double entendre that mixes the prosaic with the pornographic. Leigh’s resentment of racist sexual objectification literally bubbles up and out of the jug’s surface, possibly linking late 19th-century misogynoir with the #MeToo movement. Its color and shine suggest that despite any whitewashing, inscrutable Blackness persists underneath in congruence with art historian Krista Thompson’s theories regarding shiny surfaces in African diasporic aesthetic practice. 

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Simone Leigh, Jug, 2022, Glazed stoneware 62 1/2 × 40 3/4 × 45 3/4 inches 

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

In contrast, Anonymous (2022) is a loving tribute to the graceful beauty of the unknown photographed woman, replicating her poignant gesture and the delicate details of her collared dress. Her lower body is abstracted to a bell shape, a notable instance of what Leigh has termed “formal creolization” – the hybridization of the figural with abstract shapes that has become one of her signature aesthetic strategies. The figure exhibits another of Leigh’s trademarks – smooth empty space in the place of eyes. With this deliberate omission, Leigh preserves her subject’s dignity, protecting her from the viewer’s prying gaze.

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Simone Leigh, Anonymous, 2022, Glazed stoneware, 72 1/2 × 53 1/2 × 43 1/4 inches

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery © Simone Leigh  

In the circular rotunda, a stunning and iconic 16-foot bronze Sentinel (2022) takes command. The elongated femme nude recalls the spoons of the Dan peoples in which the spoon doubles as the figure’s abstracted head. A large circular bowl tops Leigh’s bronze, its shape echoed by the circular skylight above it creating a halo effect.

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Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2022, Bronze,194 × 39 × 23 1/4 inches

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

Leigh offers glimpses of her artmaking and personal life in Room C. A 20-minute video, Conspiracy (2022), by Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Erlich, documents the artist’s work in her studio. Given the crowds in the gallery, however, the video is mostly inaccessible to see in its entirety – perhaps intentionally so. Sharifa (2022) is a towering bronze sculpture of her friend, the author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Leigh’s first portrait. The sculpture includes delicately detailed carved renderings of her hair, head, and naked upper body that seamlessly merges into an abstract form that registers as the lower body. A rectangular block at the bottom juts out to suggest a foot, linking the contemporary with ancient Egyptian sculptural conventions. Leigh carefully depicts Rhodes-Pitts’ eyes, but they are downcast, refusing the male gaze even as her full breasts and nipples are prominent. Ancient Egyptian art is referenced again in Room D with the glazed stoneware Sphinx (2022), perhaps as a warning, or, just maybe, as a shout-out to Kara Walker’s sensational 2014 Sugar Baby sphinx, which was the subject of controversy even among Black feminist artists. Occupying the same gallery as two works that more overtly suggest Black women’s sexuality and protest, Leigh’s Sphinx appears hypervigilant, ready to oppose anyone who rudely questions Black women's sensuality. 

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Simone Leigh, Martinique, 2022, Glazed stoneware, 60 3/4 × 41 1/4 × 39 3/4 inches Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery Photo: Deanna Sirlin 

The first of these works, the stunning cobalt blue Martinique (2022), references a statue in the Caribbean island that was decapitated in 1991 before protesters destroyed it in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder. However, while the statue represents Empress Josephine Bonaparte with one arm under her breasts, the hands of Leigh’s headless femme figure appear to cup her breasts in an undeniably private autoerotic gesture decidedly unlike those associated with public protest.

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Simone Leigh, Cupboard, 2022, Raffia, steel, and glazed stoneware
135 1/2 × 124 × 124 inches  Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery Photo: Deanna Sirlin

Sovereignty’s finale, Cupboard (2022), punctuates Leigh’s devotions. A jumbo cowrie shell tops a raffia hut with no windows or doors that appears to be hermetically sealed. The work’s title alludes to Edward Weston’s 1941 photograph of Mammy’s Cupboard restaurant, its architecture imitating a long full skirt. Refusing any entry or view expresses a sense of ownership. The oversized cowrie shell with its menacing teeth announces in Leigh’s artistic language that Black women’s sexualities can be assumed but are not available for public access, consumption, or entertainment. 

The experience of viewing Sovereignty in person during a global pandemic is akin to a visionary and theoretical artistic journey, as well as a metaphorical hide and seek. Leigh amplifies her discoveries about history even as she declines to share all that she knows about Black women. Leigh’s withholdings and refusals shed light on effective strategies of resistance in the age of ever-increasing surveillance. Those who did not brave the seemingly endless lines to get into the U.S. Pavilion during all three days of the Venice Biennale Vernissage could at least see two more of Leigh’s work at the Arsenale. On April 23, 2022 Leigh was awarded a Golden Lion award for one of them, her magnificent Brick House (2019), a 16-foot bronze bust that had previously made its debut in 2019 at the New York High Line. She, along with Great Britain’s Sonia Boyce, made history as the first Black women to win Golden Lions at the Venice Biennale. Ironically, Simone Leigh and her participation in the Venice Biennale have become part of official American history in the process of contesting it. 

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Tanya Augsburg is a performance scholar, critic, and curator who can be occasionally persuaded to perform. She teaches at San Francisco State University, where she is currently Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies.