Simone Leigh’s first-ever museum retrospective (on view at the ICA through September 4, 2023) demonstrates her abiding use of clay (and nascent use of bronze) as a material and conceptual means to amplify Black female experiences and the spaces created by Black feminists. She similarly returns to certain forms, such as rosettes, bell shapes, cowrie shells, and faceless female figures, using repetition to suggest multitudinous personhood or identity.
The importance of this strategy becomes clear in the show’s second room, where bust-size ceramic and terra-cotta works on pedestals are installed alongside Cupboard IX (2019), a raffia-skirted stoneware figure with outstretched arms and an upturned jug as a head, and Overburdened with Significance (2011), an onyx-glazed human head almost completely covered in white, pink, and black rosettes, which Leigh uses to reference the feminine. Repetition, as a means to iterate and accumulate, is an aesthetic as well as a conceptual approach for Leigh. Each repeated form becomes a singular node within a sequence; cumulatively, they create variations among what appears to be sameness.
In this way, Leigh not only refutes the essentialism or categorization of Black female identity, but also honors centuries of craftsmanship by anonymous Black artisans and artists. Face jugs—referenced in works such as Head with Cobalt (2018)—are one such craft tradition. Leigh embraces and literally expands these forms to take up space, as with the massive Jug (2022). In the third gallery, Cowrie (Pannier) (2015), 102 (Face Jug Series) (2018), and Village Series (2023) are surrounded by ample breathing room, bathed in the glow of the wall-size, single-channel video dreams, my works, must wait till after hell… (2011). A collaboration between Leigh and the multimedia artist Chitra Ganesh (together called Girl), the video depicts the back of the artist Kenya (Robinson), their head completely covered by a heap of gravel-gray stones. Such obstruction of the face (the means by which we typically identify people) through natural materials rhymes conceptually with Leigh’s repeated omission, concealment, or abstraction of the female face as a means of resistance against the subjugation of the Black female body—concealment as an act of covering, of creating a space of safety.
Loophole of Retreat: Venice, a convening of Black artists, scholars, and activists, explored this idea as part of “Sovereignty,” Leigh’s landmark exhibition at the U.S. pavilion for the 2022 Venice Biennale. Organized by Leigh and Rashida Bumbray, with curatorial advisors Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt, the symposium’s conceptual framework was inspired by the 1861 autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, who lived in a crawlspace for seven years after her escape from slavery. Jacobs described this space as a “loophole of retreat,” a place that was, the symposium’s organizers write, “simultaneously an enclosure and a space for enacting practices of freedom—practices of thinking, planning, writing, and imagining new forms of freedom.”
Many works from “Sovereignty,” as well as from Leigh’s 2019 Guggenheim Museum exhibition “Loophole of Retreat,” are included here, all of them contending with the emotional and physical manifestations of Black female creative, intellectual, and bodily labor in different ways. Breakdown (2011), a video made by Leigh with Liz Magic Laser, depicts opera singer Alicia Hall Moran performing a series of tense arias as cries, pleas, and apologies. Moran, a Black woman, stands in an empty auditorium rather than on a stage; witnessing her strained vocalization and movement, we seem to be watching an emotional “breakdown.” Her position in the space of the audience instead of onstage comments on how Black womanhood is commodified and consumed. The video concludes, however, with an erect Moran walking resolutely up and out of the seating. This gesture of resilience captures tenacity in the face of structural racism and sexism.
Leigh exemplifies such determination in Last Garment (2022), a magnificent bronze figure in a pool of water. This is the only truly figurative work among her female forms, and through it, she reclaims a 19th-century racist image of a Black Caribbean woman created to promote tourism to the West Indies. Here, the woman bends over a mass of laundry, as the water surrounding her reflects the light from the nearby windows that overlook Boston Harbor. Leigh has created a protective barrier by way of the reflecting pool, which keeps us from approaching and fully seeing—knowing—the woman’s face. The figure, one among many, is thus given freedom and her own space.
Simone Leigh’s retrospective travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, November 3, 2023–March 3, 2024; and to the California African American Museum/Los Angeles County Museum of Art, June 2024–January 2025.