On ViewInstitute Of Contemporary Art Boston
April 6–September 4, 2023
Simone Leigh makes highly refined and stylish sculptures that seemingly tell consciously constructed stories as well as unintended ones. The installation of this exhibition of her works at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston is stark, dramatic, and elegant. The walls, painted a warm gray, set a mood comparable to a Robert Wilson stage set. The nine works Leigh installed in the US pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022 form the core of the show. Her sculptures contain embedded narratives built upon sub-Saharan tribal imagery, the folk-art tradition of stoneware face vessels, as well as colonial and literary sources. Each work also tells other stories, which tend to be more feminist and sexual than racial. Though acknowledged, these narratives are often glossed over in discourse. Leigh is a Black artist of Jamaican descent, and so problematically and all too often, her works are solely viewed through the lens of race, rather than being seen and interpreted for what they are aesthetically and symbolically. As such her sources override the ends to which they have been applied.
From a walk-through with the artist at the press preview of the ICA exhibition, I got the sense that Leigh takes pride in her mastery of modeling and casting techniques; the meaning of her sculptures was secondary. In this she may be likened to Martin Puryear whose early reputation was built on his refined, hand-crafted constructions. Where Leigh differs from Puryear, relative to craft, is that he is concerned with what he can get materials to do, whereas Leigh is concerned with what they may express. Unlike Puryear, Leigh is not a modernist but rather a postmodern assemblagist who combines differing historical traditions. Her mash-ups of the folk pottery of the American South with traditional sub-Saharan African iconography taken from votives and effigies results in cross-coding narratives in which history and identity are assembled and reassembled at will. This is the apparent source of the common interpretation that Leigh’s women are symbolic composites of Black material culture.
Yet another potential source for Leigh’s work who goes unnoticed is the African American sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, who in 1899 moved from Philadelphia to Paris and studied sculpture with Rodin. Leigh, like Fuller, celebrates her cultural identity by resisting stereotypical representations of the Black body, while taking pride in her African and Black heritage. Fuller is best remembered for her sculpture Ethiopia Awakening (1921) which depicts a Black woman wrapped like a mummy from the waist down, her upper torso thrusting upward, suggesting she is awakening from a long sleep. Much of Fuller’s work was commissioned by W.E.B. Du Bois and exhibited at several world expositions. Adhering to Du Bois’s view that artistic expression is an organic part of the political project of building a Black public image, Fuller’s works were intended to raise up, in the nomenclature of Du Bois’s time, the visibility of the Black race.
The video, my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell... (2011) produced by Girl (the name under which Leigh and artist Chitra Ganesh collaborate), included in the show suggests another key to Leigh’s overall project. A prolonged image of a naked Black back seen from the shoulders to the waist lying on its side in a spotlight, barely moving—nothing really seems to be happening—nonetheless disturbs, as the figure’s head is buried beneath a pile of rocks. The video articulates Leigh’s general strategy: high aesthetic values verging on the sensuous juxtaposed with images or elements whose psychological and symbolic implications are numerous, yet indeterminant.
The strong presence of Leigh’s forms, the variety of surfaces and finishes she produces, and the drama of her display all initially draw viewers to her work. What often goes unnoticed is that almost all of her women are in some manner deformed or mutilated—limbs are cut off, bodies are truncated, heads decapitated. The main signifier of their gender are breasts, as legs and lower torsos are replaced by forms derived from jug-like vessels, haystacks, and hoop skirts. As such her women are immobile, they often lack genitals, and when female genitalia is referenced it is as a cowrie shell, which were once traded for goods and services throughout Africa. They are like unequal equations with the lower half an abstract mass and the upper half an effigy.
Leigh’s women are further shut off from the world by being eyeless and earless, another state of incompletion. This is not due to violence; instead, Leigh has modeled them in such a way that there is no indication that they were ever meant to see and hear. Her sculptures of heads, such as the stoneware works Untitled (2023) or 102 (Face Jug Series) (2018) are nearly genderless, with nothing particularly female or feminine about their features. Their racial identity resides in full lips, broad noses, and tightly-curled hair, stereotypically characterized as Black facial features. Such details make who and what these women are meant to represent much more ambiguous. While they may speak, they are otherwise cut off from the outside world. It is difficult to determine if this is metaphor, or an allegory.
Likewise, sculptures of full figures have their own eccentricities. Sharifa (2022) a bronze portrait of the author Sharifa Rhodes Pitts, at twice life size, has all its features and limbs intact, yet the body is concealed by a sheath extending from beneath her bare breasts to the tips of her toes. The figure gazes inwardly, appearing to either lean against the wall or emerge from it, reminiscent of a Victorian funerary sculpture. Another bronze, Last Garment (2022) naturalistically depicts a laundress bent over at the waist, standing calf deep in a pool of water. She directs her gaze downward to view her own reflection, so as not to acknowledge those who would objectify her. Another full figure in the show is the sculpture Dunham (2023) also in bronze and patinated a uniform black. Armless and again bent forward at the hips, the figure has its head buried in the wall and her buttocks have been replaced by a jug. Where the left hip would normally be is instead the jug’s gaping mouth, which affords the viewer access to gaze into the container’s empty interior.
The story proposed by the exhibition’s press release dubiously asserts that Leigh’s work “challenges traditional hierarchies of art and labor,” and that her sculptures “give visibility to overlooked narratives or histories.” Seemingly, we would need to know that Leigh’s source material for Last Garment (2022) is a nineteenth-century souvenir stereoscopic photograph C.H. Graves titled Mammy’s Last Garment which depicts a Jamaican laundress, and what that image may have represented in context of the nineteenth-century British tourism industry. Instead, Leigh’s formal language tells us more about the inner life that circumscribes her work than the source materials so often referenced. In light of the status of women in general and Black women in particular, the narrative that emerges from her work carries with it an existential message of incompleteness, helplessness, and stoicism. Viewed from this perspective Leigh’s works take on a subtle complexity significantly different from the one built upon her various historical and literary sources.