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Simone Leigh: Sculpting Sense of Self

Gold and platinum. Raffia, bronze, terracotta, and steel.

For artist Simone Leigh, within each sculpture enlies an alchemy of material and intention.

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Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2019. Bronze and raffia.
Installation view: ‘The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat’, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York | Photo: David Heald © 2019 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Any conversion about Simone Leigh’s practice must first begin with an acknowledgement of her primary audience: Black women. In a world that is historically transfixed on quieting the lived experiences of Black women, Leigh utilizes her craft to challenge this silence. Though her intended audience is Black women the expanse of her impact is felt on a global scale. Expanding beyond the confines of art museums and private collections, her public works reclaim space and stand as monuments for future generations. And yet, to look at Leigh’s oeuvre and call her a maker of monuments is a grave, but forgivable mistake. While artists make monuments, the resulting works also go on to make and shape us. Our monuments, our tributaries stand alone to define time, space, and our collective narratives. 

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Simone Leigh, Las Meninas, 2019. Terracotta, steel, raffia, porcelain © Simone Leigh |
Courtesy of the artist and The Cleveland Museum of Art | Photo: Farzad Owrang

Based in Brooklyn, New York, but born in Chicago, Illinois, Leigh’s work is situated within a 400-plus years legacy of great American artists and alchemists. To understand the impact of Leigh, we should start with the work of David Drake, also known as "Dave the Potter" or “Dave the Slave.” Drake, who was born in the early 1800s was an American potter who lived in Edgefield, South Carolina. Drake’s pots are noted not only for their scale (they are among the largest pots to have been made by hand in the United States), but also because of their inscriptions which often feature original poems by the artist. On one pot he writes, “Give me silver or; either gold though they are dangerous; to our soul.” In a time when it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write -- each of Drake’s pots are a revolution. Utilizing scale and poetry, “Dave the Potter” stands as a testament to the power of art as a space to subvert, entertain, and educate.

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Simone Leigh, '100 (Face Jug Series)', 2018. Salt-fired stoneware © Simone Leigh |
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In works including the 5,900-pound sculpture “Brick House” or those included in her 2018 exhibition “Loophole of Retreat,” Simone Leigh carries Drake’s torch, creating works of sculpture that bring to life the stories of Black women and demand our attention and scholarship alike. Versatile, legible and inspiring, Leigh’s projects span glossy, fashion collaborations with fashions magazines to exhibitions in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and in 2022 -- pandemic withstanding -- Leigh will represent the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale.
In a moment where we are relegated to our homes and our encounters with strangers and limited and increasingly dangerous -- works of art have become our greatest companions. In our solitude, we are forced to gaze inward and re-imagine how we define our lives in a moment of incalculable loss. In her practice, as it always has, Leigh pushes audiences to reckon with how we see ourselves. Her monuments are inspired equally by her identity as a American, but also inspired by everything from the Benin bronzes to Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi - each work offers viewers the space to challenge and reconsider the worthiness of the stories and narratives that are masterfully collected to define our sense of self. 

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Simone Leigh photographed in her studio, 2020 © Simone Leigh |
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth | Photo: Shaniqwa Jarvis

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Simone Leigh, Jug, 2019. Bronze © Simone Leigh © 2019 | The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation |
Courtesy of the artist and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation | Photo: David Heald

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Simone Leigh, Sentinel IV, 2020. Bronze,© Simone Leigh | Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

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Simone Leigh, 101 (Face Jug Series), 2018. Salt-fired stoneware © Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Text: Kimberly Drew

Images: © Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth