VENICE — On a bright morning earlier this week, the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale stood unrecognizable, which was the point. Simone Leigh, chosen to represent the US at this once-every-two-years global art world extravaganza, was never going to slip politely into the four smallish galleries within. The occasion — Leigh is the first Black woman to be the country’s flag-bearer since the United States joined the exhibition almost 100 years ago — and the moment, with the world in traumatic flux, cried out for more. More is what Leigh has provided.
The pavilion, built by the United States in 1931 to house the cultural ambitions of a still-young nation on the world stage, has an air of empire: A Jeffersonian structure with neoclassical fluted columns and a triangular Palladian pediment, it signaled the allegiance of the country to its European forbears. The building represents a selective history, to be kind; its echoes of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia plantation where he kept enslaved people throughout his life, is not coincidental.
Leigh buries it in a quiet fury of intent. The old pavilion retreats under a thick veil of raffia, which shrouds the roofline in a golden veil of soft fronds. In front, towering 24 feet high, is “Satellite,” Leigh’s imposingly sleek and beautiful bronze sculpture inspired by the ritual D’mba headdress of the Baga people of Guinea. It’s a signal, resonant even from distant eyeshot: To the American narrative, Leigh will be adding stories conveniently forgotten, ignored, or even covered up and hidden away, and broadcasting them to the world.
The exhibition was produced by the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and stewarded by its chief curator, Eva Respini. Much of it will come to the ICA next year, as part of Leigh’s first-ever museum survey. It’s called “Sovereignty,” a frank, uncomplicated statement about a people’s right to self-determination — and, inevitably, the alarming frequency with which that right has been obliterated by those with conquest in mind. The genius of Leigh’s work here is its depth of intentionality, excavated from obscured layers of colonial history.
The raffia, a material Leigh has often used, derives from the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, to which thousands of Africans were brought to live on display in rows of huts with raffia-thatched roofs as specimens of French colonial dominance. Inside, Leigh’s sculptures often derive from archival photographs of Black women enduring enslavement, forced labor, or offhand degradation — the underpinning of empire, American and otherwise.
While her depth of research grounds the work, enriching — and inflaming — the experience, its ravishing elegance simmers with pure aesthetic power. “Last Garment,” in the first gallery, is a Black woman bent at the waist, laundering clothing in a dark reflecting pool. The piece is drawn from a 19th-century photograph taken in Jamaica by C.H. Graves called “Mammy’s Last Garment” and used to show potential tourists the natives’ exemplary hygiene habits. Like so many, it was taken without consent; Leigh is taking it back.
The piece offers a breath-catching moment. Leigh’s intervention on the exterior is the building’s most dramatic transformation; but subtle architectural tweaks work a profound magic here, too. Above, sun floods a skylight; a wall of glass frames “Satellite” in the courtyard beyond. Awash in sunshine, the space, with its white walls, feels almost holy, a place to pay respects to the forgotten labor of generations of Black women. It’s as though the building itself — home of empire — has been refitted as a clarifying device, with light as disinfectant for the taint of exploitation.
Leigh, who is 54, rose to prominence relatively recently. Trained in ceramics — when she moved to New York from Chicago, she worked for an architectural firm that made the decorative tiles for the city’s subway system — her career started to blossom more broadly in 2010, when in her 40s she was chosen for an artist’s residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Though she’s a virtuosic, utterly unique maker of objects, some of her most prominent work has not been sculpture at all. Some peg the beginning of her stratospheric career arc to her 2014 project “Free People’s Medical Clinic” at Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Mansion. What began as research into the United Order of Tents, a 19th-century secret society, still operating, that brings together Black women nurses, grew into a functioning medical clinic in the mansion that provided free HIV tests, health screenings, and yoga. Leigh’s community-building priorities extend to Venice: In October, she’ll bring her “Loophole of Retreat” series, a symposium of Black woman scholars, artists, and activists open to the public, to the Biennale. The name honors Harriet Jacobs, who, for seven years after her escape from slavery, lived hidden in a crawlspace — her “loophole of retreat,” as she called it in her 1861 autobiography.
Indeed, Leigh has said her primary audience is Black women; she resists simplistic notions of “uplifting,” choosing instead frank representation, which takes in the objectification and violence that’s been a bleak feature of Black life since colonial incursions began. And there is nothing uplifting about works like “Last Garment,” or in the next gallery, “Jug” and “Anonymous.” But there is serenity, solemnity, and power.
Amid sunlight and the pavilion’s pale terrazzo floors, Leigh’s work brims with purpose. “Jug” and “Anonymous,” 5 and 6 feet tall, respectively, are figures of roughly glazed white ceramic, showing the touch of a human hand, the maker herself. They perch at opposite ends of the sun-dappled room: “Jug,” a squat vessel with prickly jaw-like forms embedded in its skin; “Anonymous,” a soft-featured Black woman, head resting in hands, her torso perched atop a smooth dome.
“Anonymous” prompts a gush of empathy; the woman’s weariness, her resignation, make her an emblem of pathos. The apparent toothiness of “Jug” is meant to evoke cowrie shells, used often by Leigh as a symbol of femininity. Askew on the polished surface, they feel menacing.
Without a breath of explanation, the two pieces radiate emotion, somber and fathomless; but their precedent, an 1882 photograph by James A. Palmer, binds them together. Palmer made thousands of pictures of plantations in the South with smug disregard for his subjects’ agency or context. He called his picture “The Wilde Woman of Aiken,” posing a young Black woman at a table with a face vessel, a ritual object made by Black women in Edgefield District, South Carolina.
Palmer cared neither for it, nor for her; his goal was cruel satire, a refute to the poet Oscar Wilde’s theory that anything could be beautiful. Leigh extracts the elements of the picture and gives them not only intense beauty, but destabilizing agency and force. When form and idea come together so tightly, each driving the other to heights unattainable alone, that’s the definition of art.
There is such clarity to Leigh’s vision here that it can at times feel embarrassingly intimate. In the awkward mini-rotunda at the building’s core, she has installed “Sentinel,” a, towering, elongated bronze wisp of a woman’s body and a companion to “Satellite” outside, with its disc-shaped head. The space has never been better used; in its emptiness, it feels full.
In the next space, “Conspiracy,” a lyrical video piece made with Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, brings motion and sound to the display. Jeanne Lee’s incantation-like abstract jazz vocals are the soundtrack to a lush black-and-white film showing the work of Leigh’s studio, culminating in a raffia-skirted clay figure being set ablaze on the shore outside the studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Whatever the intention, I took away the notion of a purification rite, a declaration of self (you might recognize Lorraine O’Grady, a pioneering artist whose performances in the 1980s broke ground on Black identity, watching it burn). It’s paired with “Sharifa,” a 10-foot-tall bronze figure and Leigh’s first-ever portrait, of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, an author and historian of Black cultural history at New York’s Pratt Institute. The figure, with its head angled down toward the audience, is authoritative, but peaceful; it holds its space, and makes some for you.
The final gallery here feels like a crescendo of Leigh’s mastery of her craft, with three spectacular ceramic works: “Cupboard,” a towering dome of raffia topped with a single white cowrie shell; “Sphinx,” feline and supple, with sleek olive skin; and “Martinique,” a brilliant, rich blue, a female figure without a head, mounted on a ceramic dome. As ever with Leigh, form is wound tight to research that pinpoints injustice — racist, sexist and often both: “Cupboard” references the grossly bigoted “Mammy’s Cupboard,” restaurant in Mississippi, where the dining area was literally under a black woman’s skirt. With grace, beauty, and irresistible force, Leigh’s work says much about how we arrived at this fractured moment. She defines the problem and leaves us to sit with it. It is, very clearly, outrageous. What happens next is the question of the hour. Leigh’s work may be intended primarily for Black women. But it’s a question for every one of us.
SIMONE LEIGH: SOVEREIGNTY
United States Pavilion, Venice Biennale. April 23 - Nov. 27. Giardini Pubblici, Venice, Italy. www.labiennale.org.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.