The craftsmanship of Simone Leigh

The figures of American artist Simone Leigh – the first black woman to represent her country at the Venice Biennale – are both powerful and delicate, silent and explosive, archaic and revolutionary. Awarded the Golden Lion for her large bust entitled “Brick House”, part of an exhibition called “The Milk of Dreams”, Leigh is the undisputed star of the American pavilion, which brings together a total of nine sculptures, a video and the exterior design of the pavilion itself, which has been transformed into a kind of African building.

Born in Chicago in 1967 to a family of Jamaican missionaries, Leigh has spent the past two decades focusing her research on black women’s bodies seen through the prism of colonialism, racism and the African diaspora, but also the ideas of care, community and beauty. She expresses herself through sculptures, installations, videos and works of relational art. She uses sandstone and bronze casting alongside natural materials such as raffia, tobacco leaves and seashells. All his works are centered on physical and manual action involving clay models whenever possible. These often have hyperrealistic features, sometimes tending towards abstraction, and are almost always linked to a precise historical reference: a photograph, an individual, a situation. “Sovereignty” is the title of his exhibition, commissioned by the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) Boston for the American pavilion of the Giardini della Biennale (in Venice until November 27, 2022).

Leigh transformed the facade of the American Pavilion—originally built in the 1930s in the neoclassical style—into a tribal building (nicknamed “facade”); to bring this to life, the artist was inspired by old postcards from the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris, in which ethnographic pavilions were set up to give Europe a glimpse of the nature of the countries which it had colonized. A rapprochement that may seem playful at first, but which ultimately offers a reversal of perspective, a revealing paradox. At the entrance of the pavilion stands guard a gigantic bronze figure (“Satellite”) which echoes a traditional mask in the shape of a female torso used by the Baga peoples of Guinea to communicate with their ancestors. In this case, the mask has been transformed into a piece of architecture in its own right, with the face shaped like a satellite dish to suggest the ability not only to send messages, but also to intercept and decipher signals. who come from outside.

Inside, the first piece visitors encounter is Leigh’s hyper-realistic sculpture “Last Garment,” a bronze figure of a woman washing clothes with her feet submerged in a body of water. The artwork is inspired by a photo of a washerwoman at work (“Mammy’s Last Garment” by CH Graves) which was taken in Jamaica in the late 19th century and used as a means of attracting tourists from the Anglosphere to the Caribbean, generally suggesting the idea of ​​a place inhabited by a clean, helpful and obliging native population. An image that undoubtedly played on the white man’s sense of belonging, the polar opposite of Leigh’s theme for the pavilion: sovereignty in the sense of self-government and independence, both personal and collective. The artist turns the scene on its head, siding with the unwitting washerwoman by lovingly shaping her figure in clay entirely by hand, then casting it in bronze, drawing inspiration from both photographs and a clothed live model. period clothing; these were produced by costume designer Niki Hall, who did extensive research on clothing from this historical period. But Simone Leigh’s intense desire for realism did not stop there: she then used the same process to meticulously handcraft each of the eight hundred rosettes that make up the hair of the woman busy washing clothes.

“Leigh’s work begins with research, but ideas also emerge from the physical act of making sculpture,” explains Eva Respini, curator and co-curator of the Pavilion. “His hand is present at all stages of production. This is part of what makes his sculptures so powerful. The strong presence of the artist’s hand highlights the fundamental purpose of black women’s work both physical and intellectual, work that has often gone unnoticed and unrecognized. Simple clay for her models and sandstone for many of her sculptures: these are Leigh’s preferred materials. Ancestral, down-to-earth and communicative, they are capable of absorbing and restoring in high fidelity all the emotions, reflections and feelings of the artist.

Antonelle Galli

Captions and Credits

01, 08, 13-15: Simone Leigh, 2021. Works © Simone Leigh. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo credit: Shaniqwa Jarvis
02 Simone Leigh, Martinique, 2022. Glazed stoneware (154.3 × 104.8 × 101 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
03 Simone Leigh: Façade, 2022. Thatch, steel and wood. Satellite, 2022. Bronze (7.3 × 3 × 2.3 m). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
04 Simone Leigh, Anonymous (detail), 2022. Glazed stoneware (184.2 × 135.9 × 109.9 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck © Simone Leigh
05 e 09 Simone Leigh, Jug, 2022. Glazed stoneware (158 × 103.5 × 116.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
06 Simone Leigh, Last Garment, 2022. Bronze (137.2 × 147.3 × 68.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
07 Installation view, Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, Official US Presentation, 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
10 Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2022. Bronze (492.8 × 99.1 × 59.1 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
11 Simone Leigh, Sharifa (detail), 2022. Bronze (283.2 × 103.5 × 102.9 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh
12 Simone Leigh, Sphinx, 2022. Glazed stoneware (75.6 × 144.1 × 88.9 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck. ©Simone Leigh

Christopher S. Washington