Simone Leigh

1967 | Chicago, United States

American artist working in sculpture, performance, video and installation.

Coming to art through her interest in cultural studies, philosophy and her interest in African and American art, Simone Leigh’s ceramic and bronze sculptures, socially involved institutional practice and overall body of work are a thorough investigation into contemporary Blackness, especially black female-identified subjectivity. Greatly influenced by thinkers such as Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman, her work tackles systemic racism and the lack of empathy towards Black bodies, which stems from their dehumanisation within the United States. Such dehumanisation implies denial of pleasure, pain, knowledge and experience. Her work is an attempt at putting those subjectivities at the center.

Of Jamaican descent, Chicago-born S. Leigh grew up in the heavily segregated South Side of Chicago to Nazarene missionary parents. In 1990, she graduated with a Bachelor in Arts with a minor in Philosophy from Earlham College in Richmond in Indiana, and became interested in the practice of pottery and clay. Starting up as a ceramic sculptor in Brooklyn, New York, S. Leigh continued her studio practice despite an art world that overlooked ceramics. She had her first exhibition at Rush Arts Gallery in 2001.

In 2012 her solo show You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been at The Kitchen in New York featured a suspended, chandelier-like sculpture of huge cowrie shells moulded after watermelon and in which she attempted to “rewrite it”, in an explicit recall of the racist leitmotif. She also worked on the original Star Trek’s only Black character, Nyota Uhura, in a five-minute video piece, Uhura (Tanka) (2012), which marked her inscription within Afrofuturism. The Kitchen’s then curator Rashida Bumbray later curated S. Leigh’s emblematic Free People’s Medical Clinic in 2014. Stemming from a community-based art commission, S. Leigh invested the Weeksville neighborhood of Brooklyn with a space which offered real health services such as HIV testing but also workshops in herbalism, dancing, yoga and more. The social practice of S. Leigh continued with The Waiting Room at the New Museum in New York in 2016, a social-practice project which drew attention to the invisibility of black pain through putting Black women’s wellness at the centre, thus exploring concrete ways of self-preservation through workshops of complementary medicine, meditation, etc.
Such “social installations” cohabitate with three main sculptural motifs: the ceramic, watermelon-shaped shells; the monumental, architectural installations, such as Brick House, a 2019 bronze sculpture representing the bust of a Black woman, and which sat on the High Line in New York for two years; and the ceramic, featureless heads of Black women, such as the Face Jug Series (2018-ongoing). Maybe those play the most on her navigation between the showing and the revealing, and directly relate to the social, not-fully public practice of S. Leigh. Her women sculptures are often missing eyes or ears, as if holding secrets or escaping the wholly knowledge of the dominant, actively practicing refusal within exposure itself.
In 2022 S. Leigh became the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, as well as winning the Golden Lion (for her work in the international exhibition), along with British artist Sonia Boyce (for the British Pavilion), the first Black woman to represent the United Kingdom.

Salma Mochtari

A biography produced as part of “The Origin of Others” research programme, in partnership with the Clark Art Institute.

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