Simone Leigh: Sovereignty at the 59th Venice Biennale

Simone Leigh, Anonymous (detail), 2022.

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.
Simone Leigh, Anonymous (detail), 2022.
The Artist Brings an Unprecedented Degree of Black Female Representation to the U.S. Pavilion & the Venice Biennale at Large

The Artist Brings an Unprecedented Degree of Black Female Representation to the U.S. Pavilion & the Biennale at Large

Shaniqwa Jarvis

Simone Leigh

“It will be the first time the U.S. Pavilion is dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Black women, and marks the return of figurative artwork to the Pavilion.”

Jill Medvedow

A richly thatched roof supported by wooden poles nearly obliterates the Doric columns of the U.S. Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. The effect exceeded the expectations of Simone Leigh, America’s rising art world star and the first Black female artist chosen to represent the country at this widely anticipated exhibition—Simone Leigh: Sovereignty.

Leigh conceptualized the architectural transformation of the classic, Jeffersonian structure. She says the final result was meant to evoke, “a 1930s African Palace.” She personally chose the Italian architect Pierpaolo Martiradonn to realize her vision. The final iteration provides a powerful showcase that simultaneously obscures our colonial past while making the historical erasure of African cultural influence visible. The irony that the original Pavilion was built in 1930 was surely not lost on Leigh.

Inclusion in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, which will run through November 27, 2022, further solidifies Leigh’s stature on the world stage. Leigh’s achievements have also been recognized during this event with a Golden Lion, the top award given by the Biennale jury. The prize was presented to Leigh alongside British artist Sonia Boyce in acknowledgment of each artist’s national Pavilion and their contributions to Cecilia Alemani’s main group show, Milk of Dreams. This marks the first time Black female artists have received the prestigious award.

Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Cupboard, 2022.

The Biennale was first launched in 1895 and—except for years of its hiatus during WWI, WWII, and last year’s postponement due to COVID—it has continually grown in the number of countries participating and in the art forms included. In our present moment of political and cultural turmoil, while much of the world remains in the throes of both a war in Eastern Europe and a pandemic, the Venice Biennale still represents the best that all the participating countries have to offer in terms of contemporary art and culture.

Jill Medvedow, Director of The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston explains how the ICA came to sponsoring Leigh for the Biennale:

“The proposal for Venice grew out of [the] research and planning we were immersed in for a major survey exhibition of the art of Simone Leigh. This will be on view at the ICA in 2023, organized by Eva Respini, the ICA’s Barbara Lee Chief Curator. As our work and research proceeded on the exhibition, we thought it could be the basis for an important and timely proposal for Venice. It will be the first time the U.S. Pavilion is dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Black women, and marks the return of figurative artwork to the Pavilion.”

Cecilia Alemani, the head curator overseeing all the exhibitions invited to the Biennale, set the overarching questions to be addressed by the artists chosen for Venice 2022. Three major themes evolved from her curatorial process: “the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses, the relationship between individuals and technologies, and the connection between bodies and the earth.” Simone Leigh’s sculptural work and practice have embodied these themes in very specific ways that appear to transcend time and place.

It is an astounding feat that Leigh created all the work seen here in 2022. She was supported, particularly in the fabrication of her larger-than-life-sized pieces, by the efforts of the Stratton Sculpture Studios, a Pennsylvania foundry exclusively responsible for the mold making and bronze casting of her work. Her ceramics, as well as bronzes, were cast from full-scale clay models—an unusual, labor-intensive approach.

Simone Leigh: Façade, 2022. 
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh: Façade, 2022. 

Simone Leigh
Shaniqwa Jarvis

Simone Leigh

Installation view, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Installation view, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, Official U.S. Presentation, 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. 

Simone Leigh, Martinique, 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Martinique, 2022.

Simone Leigh, Last Garment, 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Last Garment, 2022.

Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2022.

Simone Leigh, Sharifa (detail), 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Sharifa (detail), 2022.

Simone Leigh, Sphinx, 2022.
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck.

Simone Leigh, Sphinx, 2022.

To accommodate the height of pieces like Satellite, a spectral 24-foot-tall bronze that stands like a sentinel at the entrance to the Pavilion, the team at Stratton had to raise their roof. The circular, oversized ‘head’ of this figural piece is featureless and is reminiscent of a huge satellite dish.

Inside, set against the stark white of the Pavilion’s rotunda, stands an elegant elongated bronze entitled Sentinel. Its spoon-shaped head is delicately poised atop a body whose breasts and buttocks define an unmistakably female form.

Shaniqwa Jarvis

Simone Leigh

A major theme of Leigh’s oeuvre is the recognition of Black women’s historically unacknowledged labor.

 

A major theme of Leigh’s oeuvre is the recognition of Black women’s historically unacknowledged labor. That labor takes a most literal form in Last Garment. Here, a young woman cast in bronze bends over a rock, washing clothes in a manner according to centuries-long African tradition. Her figure is isolated, alone, except for the shifting images of visitors to the Pavilion reflected in the mirror-like surface of the room-sized reflecting pool upon which she toils.

In this exhibition, Leigh moves easily between Brancusi-like abstraction and traditional figuration. But, until now, she had never attempted a portrait of a living person. Her friend, writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, who helped model for the Last Garment posed again for the artist, inspiring the standing bronze, Sharifa.

A smooth, beautifully sculpted head and full-featured face leans forward and the toes of one foot peek out from below the hem of the skirt, suggesting movement. Although originally not intended to be a portrait of a specific person, that’s what it became.

For Leigh, women’s bodies often take the form of vessels, or shelters. In Cupboard, the raffia ‘skirt’ of a figure topped by a white-glazed stoneware cowry shell resonates with the thatched roof of the Pavilion. The form and material are significant, as they are both still found in domestic architecture across Africa.

Leigh’s early work is rooted in ceramics, a subject she discovered while majoring in philosophy at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Indiana. Now, access to facilities that allow her to work in clay on a larger scale made the five-foot cowry shell-encrusted Jug and the jug-like stoneware figure Martinique possible. The intense ultramarine blue glaze on the latter piece is an anomaly, the exception in a show where black and white predominate.

Working directly, hands-on in clay is where Leigh finds her greatest satisfaction. “You see and feel the touch of her hand on every work,” says Medvedow, who describes Leigh as “an artist at the height of her power” and adds that the show’s title, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, “just stamps it with these themes of self-determination, both of the individual and the collective.” The choice of Simone Leigh is forward-looking while also rooted in the “long history of Black female collectivity, communality, and care.”

Conspiracy, a twenty-four-minute film that features Leigh burning a papier-mâché sculpture in effigy, acknowledges her history of media crossovers that include performance and social justice conscious-raising events.

Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat was the title of Leigh’s Hugo Boss Prize 2018 winning exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In October, Leigh, along with curator Rashida Bumbray will initiate the eponymously titled Loophole of Retreat, a conference of Black women artists and scholars in Venice intended to carry on the conversations that have inspired Leigh’s work through her lifetime and, hopefully, beyond.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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