Simone Leigh is a prominent sculptress amongst other disciplines, whose ceramic forms auto-ethnographically explore Black female subjectivity. Though Leigh’s work has only been in the art mainstream for the last decade, the impact of her work has quickly reverberated. About a week ago, Leigh was chosen as the American representative for the Venice Biennale, perhaps a symbolic canonization of her work — and subsequently, the canonization of Black female subjectivity in visual art.
Embedded in Leigh’s practice is a historical and contemporary collectivity, which can be seen through aspects of her 2018 Guggenheim exhibition Loophole of Retreat. The exhibition title is taken from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, referencing the attic Jacobs hid in for seven years to secure emancipation from slavery. This “loophole,” symbolic of freedom and the paradox of freedom, is also a touchstone in cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjection. Conceptually, Leigh’s work is part of a larger conversation that builds off of and reimagines the ideas of her successors and contemporaries. In art practices — especially blue-chip ones — artists usually reference art history or other artists. But to engage so directly with scholarly work is a radical undertaking; it expands Leigh’s work beyond the “I” and into the “we.”
Leigh’s bronze sculptures actualize the theory presented by the loophole. One sculpture melds a female bust with a dome-like jug. Caught between worlds, almost like a centaur that is instead half woman half vessel, the sculpture recalls the violent diasporic histories of enslaved Black women.
Leigh’s bronzes are massive and elegant. Walking around each sculpture reveals the somatic truth that you, the viewer, have to bend to its presence in acknowledgement of the beautiful space it displaces. The traditional bust holds an air of importance, of demanding to be preserved and honored. This regality is present in Leigh’s sculptures, which recalls the grandeur and importance of Benin bronzes and the way they decorated royal palaces and recorded the Benin history.
Another glance at the figures reveals they are without eyes or ears. Though often institutionally framed as for refuting the gaze of the viewer, Leigh explains in an interview, that for her, “it’s a way of abstracting the figure because…[she imagines] a kind of experience, a state of being, rather than one person.” That state of being maps the continuity of violence and exploitation of Black women, “[beings] made into a tool for others, equipment for living, an incubator of possibility, a refuge, a clearing, a dwelling, a loophole of retreat” writes Hartman. Thus, Leigh’s sculptures once more recall Benin Bronzes, but in the context of colonialist greed: That they were plundered en masse — and have yet to be returned.
Loophole of Retreat functioned on yet another level: As a daylong conference in which organizers Leigh, Hartman, and critic-theorist Tina Campt invited fellow writers, poets, artists and filmmakers into what Campt writes is a “retreat that extends ongoing dialogues, creates new relations, and nurtures our collective intellectual and creative labor.” In creating a network of Black female intellectuals for ideas to flow, exchange and breed, Leigh, Hartman and Campt have, in effect, traded individualism (and its presence in art and academic spheres) for the generosity of the collective.
The community of Leigh’s work — the “we” of her subject and impact — is bold and expansive. It proposes an alternate vision of mutual support to combat our societal darkness. Even as someone outside of the “we” of Leigh’s self-described primary audience of Black women, I can’t help but feel inspired by this model of art-making: one that relies on communal practice and extends beyond art history or the art world, creating a space that is antidisciplinary.
Cecilia Lu is a junior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]. Breathing Room runs alternate Thursdays this semester.