Simone Leigh’s First Museum Survey Is a Portrait of the Artist at the Height of Her Powers

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] Tessa Solomon (ARTnews) reviews Simone Leigh’s first museum survey, curated by Eva Respini, now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (at the Bridgitt and Bruce Evans and Karen and Brian Conway Galleries) until September 4, 2023.

A grand golden lady guards the entrance to Simone Leigh’s widely anticipated first museum survey, now on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. The sculpture looks similar to many of her best-known creations. In it, a woman’s torso emerges from a bell-shaped raffia skirt. Her face is clean of emotion, and her eyes are missing, a statement that the following works are unbothered by scrutiny.

In choices of material, mass, and form, Leigh gestures to a wealth of historical periods, locations, and artistic traditions that center Black female experiences. Some of her references are implicit; most are layered and oblique. Leigh liberated herself long ago from having to educate the ignorant—an obligation surely familiar to most people of color. The sculptures here nod to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, the nimba headdresses made by women of the Guinea coast, and South Carolina pottery, among much more.

The poise and power of these works is immediate, but it takes time to decode Leigh’s art. That’s the point, though: she is thinking through lineages that span centuries but have been largely denied a proper place in the historical record.

Leigh, 56, is among the most famous contemporary sculptors working today—she was given the Hugo Boss Prize in 2018, participated in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and did the United States Pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale, which won her the Golden Lion. Those are tough acts to follow up, but her ICA show lives up to the hype.

Many of the bronzes and ceramics on display will be familiar to anyone who visited her Venice Biennale pavilion, which made her the first Black woman to represent the US. The curator of the ICA Boston show—Eva Respini, with assistance from Anni Pullagura—has paired these works with older sculptures and installations to demonstrate how experience refined Leigh’s argument and technique.

“This exhibition really makes the argument for an artist working at the height of her powers,” Respini, deputy director of curatorial affairs and chief curator at the ICA, said during the press preview. 

One work that made the trip from Venice to Boston, Cupboard (2022), consists of a soaring raffia hut topped with a stoneware cowrie shell. Speaking about the piece, Leigh said it invokes traditional dwellings in Cameroon and Zimbabwe, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. It also alludes to Mammy’s Cupboard, a Mississippi restaurant in the shape of the titular stereotype. Since she started making art in the 1990s, Leigh has been concerned with non-Western, Black female stories and celebrates, sometimes through surreal means, their cultural intersections. Histories don’t happen in a vacuum, Leigh suggests. They flow and crash into one another.

Leigh said she drew on the scholarship of Saidiya Hartman for her Venice presentation. In her influential writings, Hartman rejects what she calls the colonial archive, which illuminates little of their interiority of enslaved people, queer people, and Black women. Given the gaps in records on these people, Hartman has made leaps of imagination to paint a fuller picture.

Leigh, in her more biting pieces, similarly conjures characters who stand in for the silenced. The bronze sculpture Last Garment (2022), installed toward the end of the show, is inspired by a nineteenth century souvenir photograph of a Jamaican laundress living in the colonized British West Indies. In Last Garment, the water is crisp as a clean mirror and reflects Boston Harbor, which is visible from a large window. The woman looks at the water, not us—she hides her thoughts.

“It’s one of these things that happens a lot in my research where it involves you having to look at your own debasement via anthropology, or via a lot of different media made in America,” Leigh said. “That’s both beautiful and involves a kind of racism that I don’t want to perpetuate [in my practice].” [. . .]

For full review, see

[Above: Photo by TIMOTHY SCHENCK. Simone Leigh’s Cupboard (2022), center, and Sentinel (2022).]

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