Simone Leigh: First Black Woman to Represent US at World’s Biggest Art Exhibition

Written By: Charlotte Mayer

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 04: Simone Leigh attends the New Museum 40th Anniversary Spring Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on April 4, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Simone Leigh, a sculptor from Chicago, will be the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the 59th Venice Biennale in April of 2022. This event is often viewed as the most prestigious exhibition in the art world. 

Leigh is known for her larger-than-life sculptures celebrating strong Black femininity. Her work contains “multilayered references to African traditions, feminism, ethnographic research, post-colonial theory and racial politics,” according to the New York Times. She currently works from her studio in Brooklyn.

Leigh received a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Indiana. She once spent a semester interning at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. This experience “spurred a lifelong interest in African motifs” and the history of objects associated with the African diaspora, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

One of Leigh’s most famous works, “Brick House,” is featured on The High Line in New York City, an elevated public park that runs through Manhattan. The piece is a 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a Black woman with detailed braids framing her face and a skirt resembling a house. Her chin is tilted to the sky as she looks onward. 

According to the High Line website, the title Brick House “comes from the term for a strong Black woman who stands with the strength, endurance, and integrity of a house made of bricks.” Cecelia Alemani, the director and chief curator of High Line Art, described it as “an icon,” “a goddess,” and a “powerful feminine presence in a very masculine environment,” due to how the surroundings are dominated by towering skyscrapers and cranes.

Leigh stated in an interview with the New York Times that people in ceramics told her “there was no way [she] would ever be included in the contemporary art space.”  Now, her art is finally getting the recognition it deserves. She has received many awards, such as the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize. Along with $100,000, this award also came with a show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. According to artpapers.org, Leigh’s exhibition, “Loophole of Retreat,” “places Black women at the center to explore narratives centered not in trauma but in the defiantly autonomous acts that often follow it.” She drew a lot of inspiration from the work of Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved abolitionist and writer. The title of the exhibition comes from a chapter in Jacob’s narrative “Life of a Slave Girl” called “The Loophole of Retreat,” referring to the tiny crawl space where Jacobs hid for seven years to escape her master. 

While Leigh has often thought of her work as autoethnographic, she also said in a video for Guggenheim Museum that there are “moments where you have to explore fiction and narrative in order to connect the dots when there’s been so much left out of the archive.” She will be creating a new series of work for the Venice Biennale and has yet to provide many details about these projects since they are subject to change. 

In the meantime, one can spend hours admiring her past work which continues to celebrate “the self-determinate actions of Black women across decades and across the diaspora,” as Leigh stated in a video for the Guggenheim Museum.

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