“The way you understand a sculpture is by relating it to your own body, so you feel its edges and its presence in space by that relationship. When I think about a young black child relating to that sculpture, it’s very exciting for me.”
Having had her work shown in some of the most prestigious art galleries in the world, such as MoMA PS1, the Walker Art Centre and the Hammer Museum, Simone Leigh is on the fast track to making history. Leigh has been selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2022, which would make her the first-ever black woman to do so.
After years and years of being overlooked, Leigh’s sculptures, which, in the artist’s own words, focus on black female subjectivity, are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Stealing the show at the 2016 Art Show in the Park Avenue Armory, her sculptures stood in-line made up of busts, heads, and torsos, looking every bit as regal and elegant as the sculptor who created them.
Depicting the black female
Born in Chicago in 1967 to Jamaican parents, Simone Leigh received a bachelor’s degree in fine art with a minor in philosophy from Earlham College in Indiana. After this, Leigh embarked on her journey of learning how to work with ceramics. Simone combines her American training in ceramics with her keen interest in African pottery, where she applies traditional African motifs and patterns into her designs, giving them a modern edge. She has also been known to work with unusual materials such as wax-casting, ceramic, terracotta, to create popular cultural iconography such as cowrie shells, tobacco leaves, etc. She creates pieces of art that redefine the existence and perception of black women all over the globe.
Leigh told the New York Times, “Black women have been left out of the archive or left out of history.” Black women have been her muses since she started creating her sculptures, hoping to provide tools of survival to these women. When she is not sculpting the feminine form, she continues to take inspiration from it. Cowrie shells have been a recurring theme in her art, often seen adorning her iconic sculptures of black women. Having a vaginal look to them, Leigh has said that cowrie shells often act as stand-ins for the figure of the feminine in her work.
Her series, Anatomy of Architecture, takes inspiration from the enmeshed forms of the human body, the built environment, and the domestic realm. Featuring figures in terracotta, manganese, epoxy, 14k gold lustre, etc, this series has references of sexuality and tangibility, that are firmly rooted in African culture. Her sculpture, Brick House, is a 16-foot-tall bust of a black woman, installed along New York’s High Line. The sculpture’s head is adorned by an afro and two asymmetrical cornrows that end in a cowrie shell.
An icon in contemporary art
Most of Leigh’s female sculptures seem to have missing features. The eyes and ears are often smoothed over, as can be seen in the Brick House too. This creates ambiguity in the sculpture, this could be any woman or group of women. The missing features also insinuate centuries of racism, sexism, colonialism and systemic oppression that the black female community has lived through.
In September of 2016, Leigh showed her exhibit, The Waiting Room, at the New Museum in New York, in honour of Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died of blood clots after having to sit in the waiting room of a New York Hospital for 24 hours. The vision of this exhibit is to provide a better and more efficient healthcare system, which is shaped by the female African-American experience. During her residency at New Museum, Leigh also founded an organization called Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BLAforBLM), as a response to the murder of Philando Castille, and countless other black citizens.
Simone Leigh is not looking back. Not yet. She has many more lives to impact for the better, through her art and her activism.