Sculpting History

American Artist Simone Leigh made history as the first Black woman to represent the United States in the American Pavilion


By Charity Ghali
Photos by Theresa Carpenter Beames


Few things in this world can be as multi-faceted and intellectually riveting as contemporary art. Its lovers savor its perspectives and hunger for its complexity. Per tradition, the contemporary art scene is feasting in Italy this year. The Venice Biennale, known as the “Olympics of the art world,” is the world’s oldest and most prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art. It gathers a global culture of creative minds and stands at the forefront of the international art scene. In April, American Artist Simone Leigh made history as the first Black woman to represent the United States in the American Pavilion. Leigh’s work was prodigiously well-received as no surprise to those who have witnessed her career and craft. Graciously sharing their credentials to attend the preview with members of their Donor’s Circle, KMAC supporters were some of the first to see the debut of Leigh’s monumental exhibition in the Giardini and to watch her make history. They were there reflecting KMAC museums’ ongoing evolution to become one of the region’s most innovative contemporary art spaces.

Co-occurrent to Leigh’s legacy as the first Black female to represent the United States, British artist Sonia Boyce was also history-making as the first Black female to represent Great Britain. This history point was compounded when both artists became the first Black women in the Biennale’s 127-year history to be awarded the event’s most prestigious honors, the Golden Lions. Leigh’s Golden Lion was for best participation in the central exhibit “The Milk of Dreams,” which featured her 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture “Brick House” that she originally created for the High Line Plinth commission in New York City. Boyce was awarded a Golden Lion for best national participation. Seemingly not a complete coincidence, the awards mirror the aspiration of the Biennale’s artistic director Cecilia Alemani’s placing that female-identifying artists and gender non-conforming artists outnumbered male-identifying ones for the first time, and this year forces a rethinking of male centrality in historical and contemporary art.

Leigh’s award for “Brick House” in the central exhibit should not overshadow the significance of her entire solo exhibition, “Sovereignty,” in the American pavilion. Juxtaposing a massive West African Palace onto the Jeffersonian-designed structure, placing a dense thatch roof perched on top of thick wooden columns, she created a majestic architectural formation that looms powerfully around the surrounding pavilions. The transformation of the Monticello-esque building into this African architectural sculpture instantly pushes the viewer into introspection. Drawing from traditional and contemporary architecture and diverse cultural iconography spread by colonialism and the American slave trade, the facade renders most speechless. Centered in the palace’s foreground is “Satellite,” a notable bronze Black female figure, Leigh’s most commonly addressed subject matter.

Often architectural, a significant amount of Leigh’s work is sculptures with corporeal quality. Best known for her “Anatomy of Architecture” series in 2016, she often addresses the objectification of the Black female form and their unacknowledged labor. This theme is paramount for her in Venice. Upon entering the pavilion, one is greeted by a large reflecting pool with a bronze sculpture depicting a Black laundress at work. The laundress ceaselessly performs her duties, and the voyeur’s constant gaze at her as an object exemplifies her lack of sovereignty over her own depiction. “Last Garment” reflects a romanticized stereotype that colonization often placed on its oppressed as diligent and dutiful.

In the second gallery, one starts to see Leigh’s ceramics that reference African pottery, architecture and objects that reflect the American South. Here one sees her use of face jugs, cowrie shells and her talent for the figurative in ceramic. “Anonymous” is a seemingly serene Black female in a hoop skirt with her face resting on her hands. Her historical use of references is complex, but the overall objective is obvious and achieved with a still elegance. Her subject’s pain is obvious, but there is a profound dignity to how she has chosen to navigate her suffering. One does not need to know all the deep influences in her individual pieces to understand what Leigh is trying to say. The Black female figure, historically abused, objectified and forced to labor, is here a graceful, beautiful voice addressing an ugly history that must be rectified.

Leigh began creating her figurative work in ceramics (which she is best known for) at Earlham College. Ironically, Leigh’s work had been presumed by many to not be able to ever hit the mainstream. She was ignored for years by curators and collectors who dismissed her ceramics as unsuitable for top galleries or museum shows simply because ceramics were considered craft. Perhaps this disregard allowed Leigh the space to grow as an artist in a way that could not have happened had she been bound by the concept that there is a distinction between “high art” and craft, and perhaps this is why one witnesses a purity in the complexity of her work. Also, this unique artistic positioning had KMAC museum promoting her work long before the Biennale.

KMAC Museum’s Curatorial Director Joey Yates felt that her practice of focusing on materials, process, labor and craft was what made her a perfect fit for a solo exhibit at the museum. When Yates joined the museum in 2012, he had followed Leigh’s work for years. “I was not only drawn to her ceramic work but also her work in video, installation and performance,” Yates explained that at this time, Leigh’s work was already making a mark in the art scene. She had a piece in the 21C collection here in Louisville and had completed her famous project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic in Brooklyn. When the museum began to redefine its artistic direction Yates knew Leigh’s work seemed apropos of its mission. Yates said, “It was clear that her work would be a perfect fit for the direction the museum was taking in presenting artists whose material explorations find new fertile ground at the crossroads of traditional craft and contemporary artistic production.” So with deep foresight of her importance and in unison with KMAC’s mission, Yates curated “Leigh’s Crop Rotation,” one of her earliest solo museum shows in 2015.

When asked to reflect on his experience when he first saw the American Pavilion in Venice, Yates said he was prepared after working with Leigh for her monumental approach. Still, it was hard to be fully prepared for the power and beauty she brought to the exhibit. He further explained, “It was a joy to see her return to so many forms she had been developing during her time at KMAC. Her iconic cowrie shells, hoop skirt forms and the rosettes all made an appearance.” These items are all seen in the second gallery referred to earlier that houses “Anonymous.”

Sentinel stands at the center of the U.S. Pavilion’s rotunda gallery. A huge bronze elongated female with a spoon-like head seems to watch -as the title suggests-over the exhibit. “Conspiracy” and “Sharifa” is a massive bronze sculpture and video piece in the following gallery. The architectural sculpture seems to lean against a wall, exhausted with her foot pushing out from beneath her skirt. The statue is of a close friend, colleague and acclaimed writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. The video showing aspects of the creation of one of Leigh’s sculptures features Rhodes-Pitts and artist Lorraine O’Grady. The relationship between Leigh and Rhodes-Pitts is close, and both artist and writer are heavily influenced by Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” They often collaborate and reference Jacobs to help demonstrate what slavery took away. In October in Venice, both will be hosting the symposium “Loophole of Retreat” as part of the U.S. Pavilions exhibit. They will bring together scholars, artists and activists from around the world to discuss and address the history of and future possibilities of freedom.

A final gallery is a group of works constructed again of ceramic, but here one sees her signature use of raffia. Again referencing the South and women’s dress, “Cupboard” references Mammy’s Cupboard, a 1940s Mississippi restaurant and Leigh grounds her on the more primitive architectural structure of a raffia hut. Placed next to this is the ceramic “Sphinx,” a popular reference to the ancient world. Leigh ties together these images to demonstrate that the objectification of the Black female form has stemmed unendingly since the beginning of ancient times.

Simone Leigh’s exhibit in Venice stirred a lot of conversation, and it can be said that she is now a superstar in the contemporary art world. Though the Guggenheim and the Whitney have been telling us that point as of late, it is exciting that Louisville’s KMAC knew her relevance very early on. Louisville is fortunate to possess two of Leigh’s works. With the ceramic bust in the 21c Museum Hotel collection, thanks to a donation by Julie and Bill Ballard, KMAC possesses “Stack II.” This 9-foot totemic sculpture was a collaboration with Louisville natives Tony Pinotti and David Caudill in 2015 for her solo exhibit at the museum.

The 59th Biennale Arte runs in Venice from April 23 to 27 November 2022 and is curated by Cecilia Alemani.