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ICA announces name, details of US exhibition at Venice Biennale: ‘Simone Leigh: GRITTIN’

The artist’s solo show marks the first time the US Pavilion at the Biennale will be ‘entirely dedicated to the experiences and contributions of Black women.’

Simone Leigh is the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Biennale.Shaniqwa Jarvis/Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

More than a year after Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art announced it had commissioned Simone Leigh to represent the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, Leigh’s body of work has a name.

“Simone Leigh: GRITTIN,” a collection of large-scale, figurative bronze and ceramic sculptures, is designed to illuminate “the labor and resilience of Black women across global histories,” according to a press release about Leigh’s entry in the prestigious contemporary art exhibition.

“With these works, Leigh weaves together references to 19th century West African art, the material culture of early Black Americans, and the colonial history of international expositions,” according to the ICA. The announcement was made during a live virtual media event Wednesday morning.


Leigh’s exhibition will also feature a three-day symposium, “Loophole of Retreat: Venice,” drawing from a 2019 project at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The symposium will gather international artists, activists, and scholars in the fall to present programming about “Black women’s intellectual and creative labor,” the ICA said. It will also include screenings, performances, and dialogues on a number of topics, including magical realism and medicine. “Loophole of retreat” is how author Harriet Jacobs described the small garret where she lived following her escape from slavery in her 1861 autobiography, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”

In this 2020 photo provided by Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, artist Simone Leigh poses for a photo at Stratton Sculpture Studios in Philadelphia. Leigh will be the first Black woman ever to represent the United States at Italy's prestigious Venice Biennale arts festival to be held in 2022.Shaniqwa Jarvis/Simone Leigh and Hauser & Wirth via AP

After the Biennale — which was postponed a year because of the pandemic — Leigh’s work from the exhibition will tour museums throughout the United States, beginning with the artist’s first museum survey exhibition at the ICA in 2023.

GRITTIN” marks the first time the US Pavilion at the Biennale will be “entirely dedicated to the experiences and contributions of Black women,” said Jill Medvedow, a co-commissioner for next year’s US Pavilion and Ellen Matilda Poss Director of the ICA. Leigh is the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Biennale, which will run from April 23 through Nov. 27, 2022. The last two US artists sent to Venice — Mark Bradford in 2017 and Martin Puryear in 2019 — are Black men.


“Grittin,” a nod to the African American Vernacular English term for “adopting a posture of protection,” is also a reference to the “grit” of the sand and stone that are at the core of the sculptures, and the internal courage and determination that Leigh designed many of the sculptures to embody, according to the ICA.

Eva Respini, co-commissioner of the pavilion and the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the ICA, noted Leigh’s “ethos of citation,” in which the artist “references the ideas, achievements, and histories of Black women’s intellectual labor.”

In addition to sculpture, the 54-year-old artist, who hails from Chicago and whose sculpture “Cupboard IX” was on display in an exhibition earlier this year at the ICA, also has a background in video and performance art.

Simone Leigh's “Cupboard IX” sculpture at the ICA.Mel Taing/Courtesy Institute of Contemporary Art

The ICA announced that Leigh had been tapped to represent the United States at the Biennale last October. The US Pavilion presents new art as part of the Biennale every two years.

The ICA is working with Spelman College in Atlanta — a historically Black women’s college — and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice to teach students and educators at the respective institutions about Leigh’s work and her exhibition.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com