Artist Simone Leigh: ‘My research was fraught with colonial framing’

“I wanted to be anything but an artist. I thought I was asking for a life of poverty and strife, which I had already had enough of . . . But one thing I did know was ceramics. And I couldn’t stop making things.” 

New York-based artist Simone Leigh shared this thought with me in Venice last October as we sat in the parlour of her hotel, sunlight dancing off the Grand Canal and casting shimmering shadows on the walls. Leigh was there as the first black woman to represent the US at the Venice Biennale.

For her acclaimed installation “Sovereignty”, she converted the facade of the US pavilion into its own sculpture, a steel-and-wood structure with a thatched raffia roof. It was a nod to both African architectural forms and the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, a fair where people from countries under colonial rule were put on display. Leigh also won the Biennale’s prestigious Golden Lion for the 16ft sculpture “Brick House”, her first bronze. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston presented the US Pavilion under the curation of Eva Respini.

Now Respini is chief curator of Leigh’s first museum survey at the ICA Boston. Across nine rooms and the Founders Gallery, it consists of 29 works created between 2004 and 2023 that show a consistency of themes and materials. They are a testament to her creation of a visual language that spotlights and amplifies the labours of black women and material culture against ways they have historically been overlooked or rendered invisible through colonialism and its ongoing after-effects.

A modern-style dark bronze sculpture of a head on a dome-like pedestal
Simone Leigh’s 2019 bronze sculpture ‘Sentinel’ © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

A close-up of sharp tooth-like objects, mainly white but one amber-coloured in the centre
Detail from Leigh’s ‘White Teeth (for Ota Benga)’ (2004) © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

Leigh, who was born in Chicago in 1967 to Jamaican parents, has a quietly commanding presence. Her voice is soft and calm as she reaches for her phone to show me a black-and-white photograph dating from the late 1990s, when she moved to New York after completing a BA in philosophy and art at Earlham College in Indiana.

“This is me when [my daughter] Zenobia was two and I was getting up at four or five in the morning to make these small pinch pots. Becoming an artist and becoming a mother was almost simultaneous. It was hard, and I didn’t have a solo show of my work until five years later. But the decision to take it seriously and accept that this was going to be a thing happened then.” 

The photo shows the artist, then in her early thirties and unknown to the world, sitting cross-legged. Between her legs she cradles her daughter while gazing directly into the camera lens, doe-eyed and fatigued. Surrounding them are concentric circles of dozens of small white porcelain conical forms. The image makes me think of a contemporary Madonna and Child, except here the woman is nurturing both her child and her craft.

A monochrome photo of Simone Leigh sitting cross-legged with her baby daughter. Surrounding them are dozens of small white porcelain conical forms
Simone Leigh with her daughter Zenobia in the late 1990s © Instagram, with permission from Simone Leigh

For Leigh, it represents the time in her life when she realised she couldn’t get away from art. In an exquisite way, it also speaks to what seems to be at the centre of her practice and art, capturing the self-determination of black women and the ways in which care has been used as a modality of living and flourishing across time. These are aspects also key to Leigh’s own route into making art.

“When I was in college I did a summer internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art,” she says. “I Xeroxed everything they had, [including] these little detailed packets made by missionaries and anthropologists on how to make Nigerian pots. That’s how I taught myself. The pots were so incredibly beautiful to me, made by women and perfect in conception.”

Leigh began making pots herself, but eventually moved away from the practice because she felt misunderstood. “I was always a conceptual artist but people would be very distracted by the object-making. It didn’t make sense to them that I was making the pot because of the idea of the pot.”

A porcelain sculpture of a black head covered with tiny roses
Detail from Leigh’s ‘Overburdened with Significance’ (2011) © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

Her first show was held at Rush Arts Gallery in New York in 2001, scheduled to open two days after September 11. “[The timing] was a disaster. I packed up everything and put it in storage and got a job. I didn’t really recover until I did a solo show at Momenta Art in 2004. That’s where I would really say was the beginning.” 

Leigh began with very few forms, “pots, breasts and this idea of teeth, which was centred on Ota Benga’s teeth”. (Benga was an 18th-century Congolese man with sharpened teeth who was displayed in human zoo exhibits in the US in the early 19th century. He later died by suicide.) Then came a shift and expansion in Leigh’s work sparked by travelling to Africa.

“I went to South Africa in 2007, and eventually started going every year . . . and visiting other countries [on the continent]. Because of my Jamaican heritage, I realised that my work made more sense in a discourse more focused on the after-effects of colonisation. I was running into documentation created by missionaries all the time and anthropologists. So my research was fraught with colonial framing.”

A dark bronze jug with the usual handle but topped by the form of a woman with an Afro and accentuated breasts
Detail from Leigh’s bronze work ‘Jug’ (2019) © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

A semi-figurative bronze sculpture resembling a headless woman bent against a wall
Leigh’s bronze sculpture ‘Dunham’ (2023) © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

In the process, she connected with the work of South African artists Dineo Seshee Bopape and Nicholas Hlobo and the Zimbabwean Lucia Nhamo. “The way they were using traditional culture to inform and make new work seemed more aligned with my practice. So I realised if I moved around, there were whole art worlds outside of the US that I could be engaged in.”

I meet Leigh again at the ICA Boston for a walk-through on the eve of the show’s opening. Over the past 20 years, she has worked in ceramics, bronze, video, social-practice programmes and installations, always centring facets of black femme and female-identifying existence, engaging with black feminist theory and acknowledging gaps in the past to name them and reclaim them in order to move forwards.

But it is her large-scale and small sculptures and videos that make up the ICA Boston survey. It opens with the 24ft-tall 2022 bronze “Satellite”. The body of the sculpture is based on the torso from the traditional Nimba ceremonial headdress of the Baga people of coastal Guinea Bissau that was associated with female leadership. But in place of the traditional head is a large satellite disc. Respini said of this in Venice that it “is a symbol of modern communication and serves as a beacon welcoming broadcasting the ideals of the exhibition and the ideas of Simone’s work”.

A sculpture in the form of a satellite dish atop a four-legged base
Simone Leigh’s 2022 bronze sculpture ‘Satellite’ © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

A golden sculpture of a woman’s form, arms cut short but with a wide floor-length dress
A view of Leigh’s ‘Cupboard’ (2022) at the ICA, Boston © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

Also included is the 89-inch-high bronze-and-gold sculpture “Cupboard”. Modelled in clay during the pandemic and cast in bronze last year, it depicts an armless female form. The face has flared nostrils and thick closed lips. There are no eyes, making the interiority of this radiant black woman seem off-limits to the viewer’s gaze. The slim naked torso sits on top of the large dome-like bottom structure that draws on variations of African architectural dwellings and gathering places. Here it is transformed into the body or skirt of the female form.

To make the skirt, raffia pieces from Madagascar were dipped in clay and layered before it was cast. “This body is the result of many years of exploring different forms,” says Leigh. “For a while I was really interested in Cycladic bodies and different kinds of formal representation of the black body. This is something I feel is very resolved now.” One can’t help but think that part of that resolution is the way in which Leigh has used scale, form and material to re-narrate and reclaim the symbol of the African hut from colonial representation.

In the nine other rooms, signature elements of Leigh’s art are on display: the tiny handmade rosettes that cover her vibrantly coloured head busts; the cowrie shells; the raffia skirts; the face jugs influenced by the work of enslaved potters from the Edgefield District of South Carolina. Leigh’s creative process includes the use of atmospheric firing that allows her to add elements to the kiln, changing the atmosphere and the object. “I like to think of the kiln environment as a metaphor for identity formation,” she says.

An art installation with a sculpture of a black woman standing in a pool of water,  bent over a rock to launder a garment
Simone Leigh’s installation ‘Last Garment’ (2022) © Simone Leigh | Photo by Timothy Schenck

Towards the end of the exhibition is “Last Garment”, a monumental bronze metal, steel and water installation of a woman bent at the waist standing ankle deep doing her laundry in a large pool of water. She is scrubbing a garment on a rock, but her head is facing down at the water and viewers cannot see her face. All we see are the hundreds of tightly coiled rosettes that form the short afro of her hair.

The piece was shown in Venice, but in Boston the pool is significantly larger, and it is set with the background of the Boston Harbor, which viewers see through the large windows opposite. A handout at the museum informs a reader that the image is named after a 19th-century souvenir photograph of a Jamaican woman washing (“Mammy’s Last Garment”). And that images like this were made to for “a growing anglophone Caribbean tourism industry”. For Leigh, the work aims to repudiate the concept of the “noble savage”, which she feels has not been discussed enough in art.

“It’s such an important visual that was used to shepherd ideas [about black people] throughout the world. In this case the ‘noble savage’ . . . and to justify a lot of things,” she says. “What I like about what happens in this work is that her gaze is averted and she can look at her own reflection even while she might be going through this experience of being part of a souvenir that’s used to create tropes about the black body that are still pernicious.”

I ask Leigh what she hopes her work will achieve. “It’s hard to respond to that question without a discussion of what is wrong in the world and what would need to change. I have liberated myself from that burden. It is not my intention to respond to or trouble someone else’s story but to tell my own.”

At the ICA Boston to September 4,, then the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC from November 3

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Maria Lewis

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