A gilded female form, armless and sleek, stands resolute in the entryway of “Simone Leigh,” the artist’s eponymous, first-ever career survey, just opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Life-sized and anchored to the concrete floor with broad, textured skirting that shimmers under warm light, it’s extravagant and imposing enough to stand you back and steal your breath. Invitation, or warning? Maybe both. Leigh’s work is not for those in search of uncomplicated beauty. But in its complexities is a sublime more rich and full than beauty alone. It seduces in whispers, and engulfs with meaning.
Leigh, born in Chicago in 1967, is likely best-known for her superstar turn at the Venice Biennale last year, where, as the official representative for the United States, she transformed the US Pavilion into a breathtaking lesson on buried histories. The Jeffersonian facade was swallowed in raffia, a tropical frond she uses often in her work to signal colonial plunder across the Atlantic world; inside, she exhumed stories specific to the exploitation of Black women’s labor in the grisly making of the country itself. Under the weight of it all, an austere grace pervaded the galleries, a contemplative calm. Because this, I think, is Simone Leigh: Soft-spoken but insistent, with deep echoes that penetrate and persist.
All of the Venice project has come home to the ICA, including the towering 24-foot bronze, “Satellite,” 2022, which looms by the museum’s door. The ICA, under deputy director and chief curator Eva Respini, produced both the Biennale project and this survey. Amid earthy-gray walls meant to evoke the warmth of clay, Leigh’s principal material, the show is arranged with an elegant logic; some spaces are faithful re-creations of the Venice installation, but they’re interspersed throughout the exhibition’s eight distinct rooms, and integrated with work across almost all of Leigh’s career.
The show’s 29 pieces are organized in a loose chronology that spans nearly 20 years of Leigh’s career, right up to now; they reflect the artist’s commitment and consistency across materials and themes over time, and chronicle an ascent to the height of her powers. Walking from room to room, I had the sense of watching greatness unfold, of history in the making. Amid all the rhetoric dominating art-world discourse in recent years — around racial reckoning, gender equity, and justice more broadly — Leigh’s work is a clarifying device, elegant and frank. Whatever future generations make of this moment, I feel sure her voice will endure.
Race is right up front in almost all of Leigh’s work; she’s often said that Black women are her primary audience, and their labor — disregarded at best, dishonored and exploited at worst — the fuel for her creative fire. You can catch your breath in that first space next to “Cupboard,” 2022 — that golden form with the domed skirt, a Leigh motif — and find “Slipcover,” tucked nearby on a corner of wall. It’s one of the earliest works here, dated 2006 (she’s reworked it several times, including for this show earlier this year).
Inside a clear plastic-zip case, porcelain plaintains in fleshy pinks and browns dangle in neat rows. During a packed press tour earlier this week, Leigh said the forms were fired using dollmakers’ color codes, concocted to mimic skintone. It’s provocative and ghastly, like grim comedy — false flesh, ziplocked and packed up. Sharing space with the otherworldly glow of “Cupboard,” the piece tracks a profound evolution, Leigh’s shift from registering injustice to transcending it — creating beauty no less freighted with trauma, but beauty all the same.
The second space here is Simone Leigh 101 – an overview of favorite forms and materials like raffia, ceramic rosettes, and face jugs, riffs on the ceramic forms made by enslaved people in the Edgfield District of South Carolina that helped launch her career. It’s as stirring a remedial study as you’ll find. The half-dozen pieces here show a mastery of firing and glaze that establish Leigh as an expert maker. During the tour, she spoke often of the material idiosyncrasies that kindled her own imagination; of the residues a kiln would accumulate, an essence it would invisibly impart in each subsequent firing. For her, she said, the kiln was a metaphor for identity formation, a crucible that fires and marks all that passes through with what came before.
Leigh works and collaborates broadly in media that include video, three of which are here. But the tactile medium of ceramics is where she lives. Her monumental bronze pieces, like “Jug,” and “Sentinel,” 2019, paired here, begin life as clay.
Leigh’s material enthusiasms establish an important fact: Nothing here is sent to a fabricator to be made; everything bears the touch of her own hand. That helps explain the deep intimacy that an exhibition of Leigh’s work can evoke. In Venice, she made things even more personal, which was very much the point. Two works here, “Anonymous” and “Jug,” both 2022, re-create a space in Venice, where the artist put on view a gruesome episode of the plantation-era south. The two forms are extracted from a historic photograph of a young Black woman, seated at a table that holds a face jug from Edgefield, South Carolina.
The jugs were talismanic ceramic objects for their enslaved makers, fitted with grotesquely cartoonish facial features. (In a wonderful confluence, more than a dozen are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts right now, part of “Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield,” where some of Leigh’s work is included). The 1882 photograph, by James A. Palmer, was intended as cruelty; he called it “The Wilde Woman of Aiken.” Leigh’s “Anonymous” liberates her from ridicule, bestowing a serene beauty upon her — head in hands, a shimmering, ghostly white. “Jug,” freed from Palmer’s gaze, is remade at near human height and studded in toothy cowrie shells — imposing, menacing, a protector.
There are some things Leigh can’t reclaim – the woman’s name, for one, disregarded by Palmer and lost to the ages. But her work is rarely about specific people so much as emblems – of injustice, of exploitation, of form and custom that defy simple readings. The domed skirt so prevalent in her figures evokes an art history touchstone in Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” a portrait of the regal Infanta Margaret Theresa and her entourage (Leigh has a 2019 piece named after it, in fact).
But the skirt also evokes the raffia-clad architecture of African cultures that came to be appropriated in Europe and America as a primitivist cliché: Leigh’s veiling of the US Pavilion in Venice mimicked the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, to which Africans were brought to live in raffia-thatched huts on site as specimens of French colonial dominance.
Grim histories are knit into Leigh’s work, an inevitable, perhaps, for a Black woman exploring colonial residue in America. Even so, it provokes solemnity, but not pathos. This is an artist who meets power with power, unflinching but graceful, and in pursuit of truth.
The exhibition concludes with “Last Garment,” 2022, a monumental bronze made for Venice of a Black woman bent double in a reflecting pool, laundering fabric against a stone. Like “Anonymous,” it’s an extraction of a historical photograph, taken without its subject’s consent, as evidence for white tourists of the hygienic habits of the Black Jamaican population. Leigh makes her monumental and resolute, her gaze, cast down, belonging only to her.
Here, the ICA has opened a wall facing east into Boston Harbor, where slave ships once came and went, underwriting the obscene wealth of a colony founded on exploitation and built through bondage. She stands in a pool that reflects her own image, and on all of us.
April 6 - Sept. 4, 2023. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 25 Harbor Shore Drive. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org.