While Simone Leigh is arguably one of the most famous artists in the United States, drawing acclaim from all corners, she emphasizes that she creates with a specific audience in mind: Black women. Historically, African American women have been burdened by intersectional oppressions, based on race, gender and class, that hinder their humanity, and understanding Black women’s oppression is the key to accessing Leigh’s work. The artist pays homage to the thinking behind Black feminist theory, which attempts to provoke liberation from these oppressions.

As an artist, Leigh reflects on the lived realities of Black women and is sensitive to those realities while working with materials whose functional and aesthetic qualities provide an understanding of the art itself, the labor necessary to make the work, and how to appreciate it. Her increasingly figurative sculptures deftly evoke relics of generational trauma.

The solo retrospective “Simone Leigh,” which originated at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), is now on view at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. The works on display include landmark pieces from Leigh’s appearance at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where she represented the United States and won the Golden Lion Award for Best Participant—the first Black woman to do so. The Smithsonian show features key selections from the artist’s prestigious two-decade career and includes three new sculptures cast in bronze.

Herm by Simone Leigh, 2023
Herm, Simone Leigh, 2023 ©Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck
Herm, Simone Leigh, 2023
Herm (detail), Simone Leigh, 2023 © Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck

“Simone Leigh is an extraordinarily important artist. She has an incredibly high profile at the moment,” says the museum’s Anne Reeve, a curator overseeing the new show. “But she’s also working with themes and materials that are so important to a national conversation, not only to history and evolution of art and making, but to a national conversation about acknowledging Black women’s stories, histories and labor.”

The three new sculptures, Bisi, Herm and Vessel, are strategically centered in the gallery, appearing as if in dialogue. The almost eleven-foot-tall Bisi depicts the head of a Black woman, perched atop an alcove, where it seems possible an entire human body might find respite and comfort. The figure’s short-cropped, naturally coiled hair is carefully rendered. Her nose is wide and her lips thick. But, disturbingly, the bronze carries only a shallow depression in the place where the eyes should be. The eyes—a window into the soul. With this omission, is Leigh, perhaps, offering her subject a semblance of privacy?

Installation view of Simone Leigh’s three new sculptures, Vessel, Bisi, and Herm (2023)
Installation view of Leigh’s three new sculptures, from left, Herm, Vessel and Bisi (2023) Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

Helen Molesworth, a former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, says the artist’s sculptural work “engages a dynamic of hiding in plain sight.” Writing for Art Forum, Molesworth points out that a lack of eyes “might seem to invite viewers to regard [the figure] in a classically colonializing manner: You can look, and they cannot look back.

“But this is not the sensation I have when looking at them. I feel as if it is I who cannot ‘see’ them. They do not, importantly, ‘refuse’ my gaze (because that dynamic would still place me at the center of the event). Rather, their lack of eyes counterintuitively means they are ‘unseeable,’ and hence unknowable, to me.”

Overburdened with Significance (detail), 2011
Overburdened With Significance (detail), Simone Leigh, 2011 Bridgitt and Bruce Evans. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

The figure Bisi doesn’t have arms, either; within the hollowed skirt of the sculpture, we recognize the figure to be comforting—a burdensome characteristic of Black women, stemming from the historical “mammy” archetype. Here is the enslaved domestic worker charged with the care of other people’s children, perhaps even as her own children might await her return. And to outsiders, this task—stereotyped in pop culture and film—is seen performed with a bright “Aunt Jemima” smile.

Yet here in Bisi, Leigh relinquishes the warm embrace of the mammy’s arms as if to make known that any care rendered from this figure is an act of taking without consent.

“I have a vocabulary of forms, and one of them is the cowrie shell, which you’ll see repeated throughout the show as well,” Leigh explained during a recent tour of the exhibition. She creates her cowrie shells by casting molds of watermelons, rewriting the fruit’s association with anti-Black racism and stereotypes of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Cowrie (Pannier), Simone Leigh, 2015
Cowrie (Pannier), Simone Leigh, 2015 Collection of Jonathan and Margot Davis. Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh

At the entrance to the show, one encounters the most recognizable of her works, the towering 2022 Cupboard, which features two of Leigh’s signature motifs—cowrie shells and Black woman figures wearing voluminous raffia skirts. This work is inspired and titled after the roadside restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard, built in the 1940s as an architectural sculpture of a dark-skinned serving woman in a full hoop skirt. At the restaurant south of Natchez, Mississippi, patrons would enter the building through a door located at the bottom of the woman’s skirt.

“I thought the symbolic violence in this gesture of going in to eat in someone’s skirt was really stunning, and that it symbolically tells a larger story about the experience of Black women and femmes,” Leigh explained in a 2019 interview for Art Newspaper.

Spatial synergy and conversation between artworks are key in this retrospective, explains Reeve, who worked with the exhibtion's organizing curators at the ICA Boston. But the ultimate vision for the space, she says, came from Leigh. The 15,184-square-foot reach allows expansive space for the 29 objects and video works that are projected larger than they ever have been seen.

White Teeth (For Ota Benga), Simone Leigh, 2004
White Teeth (For Ota Benga), Simone Leigh, 2004 Installation view, Simone Leigh, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2023. Collection of Sherry Brewer Bronfman, New York, photo by Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh

“We were working very closely together to make the show feel the way Simone wanted it to feel and to do the works justice and make sure they were respected,” says Reeve.

Leigh is no stranger to the Smithsonian Institution. While she was a student at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, her professor Michael Thiedeman, who first introduced her to clay, encouraged Leigh to apply for an internship at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, where she immersed herself in pottery from the continent. According to a lengthy interview with the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins, Leigh also took inspiration from Nigerian Pottery by Sylvia Leith-Ross, a book she discovered during those foundational years. Reflecting on her use of pottery, she tells Tomkins, “It was something women had been making all over the world for centuries, this anonymous labor of women.” She sees the two, women’s pottery and African objects, as closely linked in Western art culture, as they are both relegated to domestic crafts, not serious or “high art.”

Interestingly, some of Leigh’s ceramic works, albeit now on a larger scale, push back on the notion that women’s art or African art objects should be consider lesser than traditional Western art objects.

Simone Leigh Golden Lion
On April 23, 2022, Leigh received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Felix Hörhager via Getty Images

On September 13, 2001, Leigh was scheduled to open her most important show to date: a solo exhibition in a New York City gallery. But it was neglected in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Three years later, she returned with a fresh show at Momenta Art in Brooklyn, and she has been exhibiting regularly since then. The artworks now at the Hirshhorn are not exhibited chronologically, but the oldest piece, White Teeth (For Ota Benga)—a sculpture made of steel, porcelain, glass and wire—dates to 2004.

In 2016, Leigh was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, offering her the unfettered ability to pursue scholarship in the creation of any artform. In 2018, she was awarded the Hugo Boss Prize, which honors outstanding achievement in contemporary art. And in 2019, she was commissioned to erect her immense sculpture Brick House on the High Line in New York City.

“In some ways Leigh is receiving so much attention and acclaim at this moment because it is only just now that we are catching up to the work that she has been doing for so long,” Reeve says. “And the museums and cultural organizations are finding their way to this work that she has been forwarding with an enormous amount of commitment and discipline for a very long time.”

"Simone Leigh" is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. through March 3, 2024. The exhibition, from ICA Boston and organized by Eva Respini, Barbara Lee and Anni A. Pullaguru, next travels as a joint presentation to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and California African American Museum from June 2024 through January 2025.

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