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Women’s Work: Simone Leigh

Brick House, 2019

Simone Leigh (b. 1967) is a sculptor whose practice is rooted in philosophical and cultural studies of African diasporic societies, particularly as it relates to the role of women and work.

Leigh, whose work has been featured at the Hammer Museum, the Whitney Biennale, and the Guggenheim, is currently representing the United States at the Venice Biennale, the largest and longest running biennale exhibition in the world. This is the first time the United States commission was awarded to a black female artist. Her exhibition, titled “Sovereignty”, was awarded the top prize. Leigh's work, which is often monumental in scale, contains features of black women and African diasporic cultural symbols like cowrie shells and plantain leaves. The figures often have missing features, which create a sense of mystery. While her work has enjoyed wide-spread acclaim from a broad-based group of collectors and institutions, she is clear that her primary audience is black women.

What is an art biennale? An art biennale is an exhibition of contemporary art occurring every other year that is generally organized around a unifying vision or theme set by a curator. The Venice Biennale features pavilions from 80 countries who commission artists to represent them.

“I think like someone from the Caribbean. I like how complicated it is, seeing beauty in something that was horrifying at the same time.”

Image credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis

Simone Leigh was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois on the city’s South Side. Her parents were Nazarene missionaries who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Leigh’s father, Gilbert Obadiah Leigh, became a prominent pastor with a street named in his honor. Simone grew up in an affluent but strict household that forbade dancing, moviegoing and other “sinful” activities. Said Leigh, “Before I was seventeen, I went to church more often than most people do in their entire lives.” Of the four children, Simone was the most rebellious. She challenged her parents by asking questions. “I didn’t have the crystalized resistance that Simone had. I didn’t confront our parents the way she did,” said older brother, Whitney. Leigh’s parents coerced obedience by threatening her body and soul to eternal damnation, which kept her in line through much of her childhood. But innerly, she never adopted Nazarene values. “We had vacation Bible school, and Nazarene sleepaway camps, and I even taught Sunday school for a while. But I never became a believer.”

When time came for Simone to attend college, her parents required her to attend a Christian school. She convinced her parents that Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana, was Christian enough. Earlham was liberating for Leigh. “Earlham really saved me. Quakers believe that God is in everyone and they respect people so much.” Simone explored her newfound freedom by taking courses in philosophy and art, and she had her first boyfriend. But a reckoning awaited when Simone returned home during a school break in her sophomore year. Her father had discovered her relationship, and that it was sexual. He gave her an ultimatum. Leigh had to either transfer to a Christian school in Chicago and live at home, or she would be cut off by her parents, financially and emotionally. Leigh decided to return to Earlham. She would barely talk to her parents for the next ten years.

Back at Earlham, nurtured by astute professors, Leigh took a deepened interest in philosophy, particularly related to women, and art. In philosophy, Leigh was attracted to the ideas of French and modern American feminists who argued that women should not aspire to a hyper-rational ideal but should embrace and value emotional intelligence. In art, Leigh immediately took to ceramics, particularly hand-made coil pots. She had a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art where she studied African vessels, including Nigerian pottery. Her favorite objects to make were large terra-cotta water pots.

Image credit: Heather Fox

Leigh graduated from Earlham in 1990 and moved to New York, where she worked in a ceramics shop and continued making terra-cotta pots. “For ten years, I was obsessed with these water pots. It was a kind of perfect form, and it was something women had been making all over the world for centuries, this anonymous labor of women.” At this stage, Leigh didn’t identify as an artist. She loved making pots but wasn’t ready to commit to the uncertain career path of an artist. Plus, ceramics are known primarily as functional vessels rather than pieces of fine art.

After two years in New York, Leigh moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where she joined a largely white, bohemian pottery commune. “There were people who described themselves as Sufis, and people who taught the Japanese tea ceremony, and others who were living out all kinds of utopian fantasies, ” said Leigh. She met and learned from a group of aspiring ceramic artists who used a Japanese-style anagama kiln to fire their work. While there, Leigh also discovered a 64-page souvenir photo book from the 1931 Paris colonial fair, a family heirloom of a Virginia heiress who was part of the community. The fair showcased indigenous art, architecture and culture from societies colonized by European powers in a way that brought exposure and awareness to these cultures, but also dismissed and devalued them through insensitive, myopic presentations. After a year living in the commune, Leigh realized that she didn’t want to make functional pots, she missed the city, and she missed proximity to a black community. So she moved back to New York in 1993.

Back in New York, Leigh struggled to make ends meet. She taught art to children, worked odd jobs as a ceramicist and occasionally sold her pots. She married her roommate, photographer Yuri Marder in 1994, and in 1996 gave birth to her daughter, Zenobia. For the next five years, Leigh decided to step away from her art and focus on motherhood. In 2001, Leigh and Marder amicably divorced. And Leigh decided it was time to own her calling as an artist. Leigh and Zenobia moved into a spacious loft in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where she poured herself back into making art. This time, she began making more abstract shapes, often breast-like forms, incorporating rosettes, chicken wire and metal armatures to hold works together and suspend them from ceilings.

Yellow Cowrie III, 2012

Image credit: Simone Leigh

Trophallaxis, 2008-17

Image credit: Simone Leigh / Matthew Marks Gallery

Leigh’s inaugural art show was in 2001, at age 34, at the Rush Arts Gallery. Over the next nine years, Leigh’s career progressed, with shows and residencies throughout New York. She also expanded her network in Africa. But progress was slow. That changed in 2010, when Leigh received a prestigious residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the residency show in 2011, Leigh met and immediately connected with gallerist Jack Tilton. Over the next few years, Tilton would guide her market, arranging placement in key shows, including shows in 2016 at the Tate Exchange in London and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. It was also in 2016 that Cecilia Alemani, then curator of the High Line’s art projects, commissioned Leigh to create a large-scale work in bronze. Leigh had never worked in bronze before or at such a large scale, but she found that her years of training in hand-made ceramic sculpture suited her perfectly for bronze casting and works at a larger scale.

In the spring of 2019, the monumental work, titled “Brick House”, was placed on the High Line at 30th street and 10th avenue. The piece, visible from the street below, made a powerful impression due to its scale and the regal, mysterious expression of the eye-less woman figure adorned with braids and cowrie shells.

Brick House, 2019

Image credit: Timothy Schenck

In the fall of 2020, the US Department of State, in partnership with the ICA Boston and the Atlanta University Center Art History and Curatorial Studies Collective, selected Leigh to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The Biennale was curated by High Line art project curator, Cecilia Alemani.

Leigh, with memory of the 1931 Paris colonial fair she discovered in Charlottesville, endeavored to re-fashion the exhibition space according to her vision - one with a deeper grounding and respect for African culture. She worked with her architect to transform the faux-classical U.S. pavilion into a structure with distinctly African architectural features – wooden supports and a thatched roof. Visitors would be welcomed by a 24-foot bronze piece called “Satellite” that resembled an African headdress with a female form, long neck and a concave disc for a head. Inside, Leigh presents works that glorify the strength women whose labor is often undervalued or not acknowledged. The works are striking, conveying a sense of power, heaviness, elegance, depth and mystery.

Satellite, 2022

Image credit: Timothy Schenk

Last Garment, 2022

Image credit: Timothy Schenck

Cupboard, 2022 and Sphinx, 2022

Image credit: Gus Powell

As Leigh’s career has evolved it has become clear to her that her primary target audience is black women. Artist and writer, Lorrain O’Grady said, “Simone is certainly aware of all the other audiences out there, trust me. But we’re talking about something very deep, which is the audience with whom you have interior conversations as you work, in order to shed light on issues that have received no light for centuries.”

A key element of Leigh’s aesthetic is that her figures are often missing features. They frequently have no ears and their eyes are smoothed over. In that sense, they are walled off from the viewer: perhaps as a protective mechanism, perhaps as an act of refusal. According to art writer Alex Greenberger, “Leigh’s sculptures are mysterious – they seem to stonewall the viewer, though one gets the sense that the women she depicts contain deep psychologies that are only legible to some.”

Leigh often combines traditional techniques like lost-wax casting, salt-firing and terracotta with African diasporic cultural symbols like cowrie shells, plantains and tobacco leaves. Her hand is heavily involved in the creative process. As such, she’s limited the scale of her studio operation. She also manages her creative freedom by paying for her own production. “If your gallery is paying, then they’re the client,” she says. “You’re not the client. I pay for everything myself so I can be free, and that’s better for everyone. That’s the difference between being successful when you’re fifty-four and when you’re twenty-nine. It’s worked very well for me.”

Leigh’s work is currently on view at the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy through November 27. In 2023, her work will be featured in museum surveys at the ICA Boston (spring/summer) and the Hirschhorn in Washington, DC (fall/winter). Leigh is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery. Leigh's 2012 work Birmingham sold at auction with Sotheby's in May 2022 for $1.8M.

Watch Leigh’s pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale:

Watch Leigh talk about her process:


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