At a recent cultural event in London, I overheard someone say, ‘Her skin was like porcelain and alabaster,’ a comment naturally intended as a compliment. To whom exactly they were referring, I couldn’t be sure, but I imagined she was carved by a deity: soft, graceful and full of beauty. It also felt fair to assume that her skin was much lighter than my own. I struggled to think of a statuesque monument of a Black woman who was memorialized for her allure alone, rather than her service to society or resistance to prejudices.
The artist Simone Leigh has sought to change that with Brick House (2019), her 16-foot-high bronze sculpture, which will be unveiled on 5 June as the inaugural commission for the High Line Plinth. Sculpted in the image of a Black woman, the figure casts her gaze resolutely down New York’s 10th Avenue. Her eyes are sunken, but her lips are full and accentuated; her afro is bordered by long thick cornrows with a cowrie beaded on the end of each braid. Her torso is shaped like a lemonade jug and clothed in a skirt adorned with fabric piping. ‘I’ve been thinking about the labour of Black women, what forms of knowledge they carry, and what kinds of labour they are involved in that’s not valued,’ Leigh explains in a video statement on the Guggenheim website. With 9,000 pounds of clay, the artist modelled the bell-shaped bodice of Brick House as a cultural repository of Black female experience.
Born in 1967 in Chicago to Jamaican parents, Leigh completed her BA in Art and Philosophy at Earlham College before moving to New York with her daughter, where she has remained for the last 25 years. It was there she began making the figurative work in ceramic for which she is best known, and which offers a compelling precedent for Brick House. The bust Kingston (2013), for example, features an asymmetrical hairstyle made of small rosettes atop an elongated face and neck with facial details abstracted by a white veil of glass beads. Georgia Mae (2017) shows off her perfectly constructed bell-shaped torso; You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been (2012), meanwhile, is a chandelier of watermelon-size cowrie shells, the world’s first currency, traded between – and for – Africans.
For years, curators and collectors ignored or dismissed such work, regarding ceramics as craft unfit for blue-chip galleries or museum shows. Yet their disregard gave Leigh the space and time to mature as an artist unbounded by artificial distinctions between craft and ‘high art’. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s understood ‘women’s work’ as physical evidence of socially transformative ideas: AfriCOBRA collective member Jae Jarrell, for instance, produced wearable garments, such as The Revolutionary Suit (1969), from tweed and suede; Faith Ringgold employed fine needle-work she learned from her mother to create colourful narrative quilts, such as Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima? (1983).
In addition to the recently completed Brick House, Leigh opened ‘Loophole of Retreat’, her Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, on 19 April. She has also been awarded a 2019 United States Artist fellowship, and her work is currently included in the Whitney Biennial. Increased demand has enabled Leigh to move from ceramics to the more costly clay-modelling technique, which allows for a more relaxed working pace. She employed this process to produce Brick House, the largest work in Leigh’s ‘Anatomy of Architecture’ (2016–ongoing) series, which merges the human body with tropes from African vernacular architecture.
The sculpture is not intended to compliment the idea that Black women are innately strong and invulnerable; rather, the artist hopes to invoke the varied architecture of female bodies, such as those belonging to athletes Caster Semenya and Serena Williams, who are often mocked as being too large or too strong, as though that makes them lesser women. The bodice of Brick House (2019) is informed by the homes of the Batammaliba people in Togo, whose name translates to ‘those who are the real architects of earth’; dome-shaped structures built by the Mousgoum people in Chad and Cameroon known as teleuk; and a soul-food restaurant in Mississippi, Mammy’s Cupboard, built in the form of a Black mammy. According to Leigh, ‘architecture is a text that we can read to understand the ontological, philosophical, and psychological expressions of a culture.’
Though her principal medium has long been ceramics, Leigh has made significant works in video, installation and performance, as well as works of generously inclusive social practice. The Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014) offered healthcare from a Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone free of charge. The Waiting Room, presented at the New Museum in 2016, was dedicated to 49-year-old Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died after 24 hours of waiting, neglected, in a New York City hospital receiving room. The space offered community acupuncture, lessons in herbalism and guided meditations. Over three months, this work continued to expand on Leigh’s desire to offer immediate care and attention to othered bodies through alternative notions of medicine as an alternative to the American healthcare system.
An artist residency at Tate Exchange in 2016 which resulted in the programme ‘Psychic Friends Network’ further illustrated Leigh’s pledge to activate spaces for communal preservation. Over the course of a week, Leigh hosted free intergenerational workshops (including an evening to meditate on ageing with Lorraine O’Grady), forums that addressed desire and healing, doily-making classes and a collective listening session. The popular residency closed with an entrancing dance performance, Aluminum (2016), in collaboration with New York-based choreographer Rashida Bumbray. Beginning barefooted in the Tanks at Tate Modern, Bumbray led the growing audience up the spiral staircase singing an African-American spiritual, ‘Lay Down Body’. Leigh, gliding close behind, became the second voice in the call and response song, repeating the names of Black people murdered by the state: Mark Duggan, Alton Sterling, Sarah Reed, Sandra Bland. Lifting up her red-chequered dress, Bumbray revealed large silver South African ankle-shakers and began to sharply execute a variety of African dance forms – stomps, taps and hoofs – against the concrete floors. Shuffling in counter-clockwise and forward circles, drumming up symbolic communication with their ancestors, the artists were then met by a young flautist and trumpeter on the museum’s fifth floor, against a panoramic view of London. In Leigh’s words, the performance ‘refers to ritual as knowledge transfer’, indicating the power of performance as a tool of collective memory and cultural criticism, both within and outside of institutional spaces.
There is a bodily archive of histories and languages that we carry ‘in the flesh’, according to scholar Hortense Spillers in her essay ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’ (1987) – one that we can use to reconstitute ourselves. Black female flesh, Spiller formulates, comprises ‘layers of attenuated meaning, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order’. As Black women have been oppressed, their opportunities for social and political self-identification have been shrouded from view. Leigh’s work helps to uncover them, reminding us ‘who are the real architects of earth.’
Main image: Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2019, installation view, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA. Courtesy: the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York; photograph: David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
'The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat' runs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA, through 27 October 2019. Brick House will remain at the High Line Plinth, New York, USA, until September 2020. 'The Whitney Biennial 2019' runs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, through 22 September 2019.
Rianna Jade Parker is a writer, critic and researcher based in London, UK. She is a founding member of interdisciplinary collective Thick/er Black Lines and is a contributing editor of frieze.