Simone Leigh: Powerfully present

Installation view of 2018 Hugo Boss Prize winner Simone Leigh’s Guggenheim exhibition, “Loophole of Retreat.” Photo- David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Contributed by Anne Swartz / Simone Leigh’s art, which focuses on the experience of black women, is powerfully present in New York City by way of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim and the monumental bronze sculpture Brick House on the High Line  – with several pieces at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Leigh’s work references the histories, imagery, and feminist sensibilities of black women – culturally important phenomena that have generally received little attention.

Like Nancy Grossman’s leather-covered, masked and sculpted heads from the 1960s, Leigh’s figures have no eyes. The women depicted have lived “in their heads,” as Grossman described her sculptures, like ancient blind seers who nonetheless knew and could still see everything. If the brutality of their circumstances deprived them of sight, they overcame this hardship by sheer will.

Brick House, named for the Commodores’ popular 1977 song, is a massive 16-foot tall bust atop a five-foot plinth of a black woman with a gilded head defined by an edged hairline and draping corn rows, nose, and mouth.  The ridged garment is bronze with small passages of gold in some corrugation breaks. Its bulbous shape arrestingly holds the space, set as it is against the severe horizontals of its High Line railroad bridge base and the soaring verticality of adjacent buildings. Its surface, though simple, holds a range of allusions, from mud huts of the Musgum people in Cameroon to Mississippi’s roadside restaurants. Where the eyes might be, there is simply a blank space.

“Loophole of Retreat” is the subtitle of Leigh’s Guggenheim exhibition and a chapter title from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first published in 1861, an autobiography of a slave who hid from her master for seven years in an attic where she could glimpse out while staying hidden from view. Leigh contemplates slavery as a domineering reality when the black woman was defined as property and ignored as individual, and then as a metaphor in shaping American race relations after slavery was formally abolished.

Simone Leigh, Panoptica, 2019. Photo- David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

The small, memorable Guggenheim exhibition consists of four large sculptures, one smaller sculpture, a mixed media installation with sound, and three films all envisioning black women’s experiences. Recalling her Anatomy of Architecture series about Batammaliba western African architecture, the approximately 10-foot tall Panoptica is a massive hut-like, raffia-tiered, anthropomorphic structure with a terracotta pipe and two-portal chimney centered at the top. The title is a feminization of the word “panoptican,” which refers to a surveillance system enabling constant oversight by penal guards from a distance, even if the pipe seems like a periscope looking out. Leigh’s title conveys her judgment that although black women are no longer literally imprisoned en masse, merely being black remains a form of incarceration.

Jug is a large, black, bronze sculpture in the style of a stoneware jug with a small handle as fingerhold on one side, including, in line with African and early American tradition, a female torso, breasts, partial face, full round head of hair, and two arms dismembered at different places. The figure’s proportions seem incongruously delicate against the massive swell of the jug’s base. Her defined breasts and the broken limbs recall nude sculptures from antiquity, while the defenselessness of her arms literalizes the figure’s imprisonment. The same state of enclosure appears in Sentinel, in which the giant head, face, and hair seem to emerge from the pipe, a woman both constrained and vigilant. In both sculptures, the bronze color reads as ebony or obsidian skin tone. Again, there are voids where the eyes should be.

Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2019. Photo- David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The mixed media work at the rear of the gallery space is also called Loophole of Retreat, like the exhibition itself. It consists of a long wall and a short perpendicular wall of precast concrete breeze blocks, prominent in many countries, including island homes such as those in Leigh’s parents’ native Jamaica. Contained within it is a The Village Series #14, a small stoneware conical sculpture, about five feet tall with the base, featuring a shiny brown glaze and three braided seams resembling hair or suture lines. The sound work, made with Philadelphia-based musician Moor Mother, is a paean to Debbie Africa, the MOVE member who gave birth in prison. It references her cellmates’ noises, masking birthing sounds to give the mother freedom to bond with her newborn. Even with perforations in the blocks, it is difficult to see the sculpture (or hear the sound piece) contained inside the walls until you are almost upon it.

There are three films accompanying the Guggenheim exhibition, shown on a loop during one theater screening each day of the show’s run. One, made by Leigh, shows an imaginary M*A*S*H unit that includes the Order of the Tents, a secret society of black nurses started by ex-slaves. The other two, by filmmaker Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, are about how black women help one another with female strength, maternal support, and female community.

Leigh’s formal expressions of content reflecting racial injury and self-respect certainly expose and call out white supremacy and patriarchal intrusion, and her work is increasingly widespread and acclaimed. Yet her primary audience remains black women, whose narratives she entwines with exquisite nuance, and to whom she speaks with utter sincerity.   

Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat I (detail), 2019. Photo- David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York, Sound work produced in collaboration with Moor Mother

The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat, organized by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, and Susan Thompson, Associate Curator, with Amara Antilla, Assistant Curator. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1070 5th Ave, New York, NY. Through October 17, 2019.

 Accompanying the exhibition is broadsheet with text by cultural historian Saidiya Hartman in collaboration with Simone Leigh and designed by Nontsikelelo Mutiti. Three films screen each day from 3:00-4:20 pm (Untitled (M*A*S*H), Simone Leigh, 2018-19; Black Composer Trilogy, Part 1: A Quality of Light, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, 2018 and Spit on the Broom, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, 2019. 

Loophole of Retreat: A Conference was held on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Simone Leigh co-organized the conference with scholars Tina Campt and Saidiya Hartman with presentations by Simone White, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Rizvana Bradley, Andrianna Campbell, Dionne Brand, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Christina Sharpe, Vanessa Agard-Jones, Françoise Vergès, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Grada Kilomba, and Lorraine O’Grady. Remarks by Annetta M. Lane. Performance by Okwui Okpokwasili with sound design by Peter Born.  The conference webcast is available here.

Simone Leigh, Brick House, 2019

Brick House is the inaugural High Line Plinth sculptural commission and is installed at 10th Street and West 30th Street on the High Line Spur.  Its section officially opens to the public on June 5.  It will remain on view until September 2020.

About the author: Anne Swartz is a professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She lectures, curates, and writes on topics in contemporary art, especially feminist art.

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