At the Venice Biennale, artist Simone Leigh centers the experience of black women
When you arrive at Piazza San Marco in Venice, turn right towards the Adriatic Sea. Then follow the water south, over ancient bridges and past the bustling terraces of the city. Soon you will arrive directly at the Biennale Giardini, the ground that has hosted the Venice Biennale since 1895. The event is a massive international production – an exhibition in equal parts of some of the world’s greatest artists, a business conference and a diplomatic matter.
The grounds of the Biennale are dotted with buildings called pavilions, built by various nations. Israel is next to the United States and Hungary is a stone’s throw away. Most of the buildings looked the same as in previous years. But on opening day, Simone Leigh made the American pavilion unrecognizable. She is the first black woman to receive the Biennale commission, and she transformed the pavilion to reflect that.
The State Department chose the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art to curate Leigh’s work for the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. Standing in front of “Satellite,” Leigh’s towering sculpture at the entrance to the American pavilion, ICA director Jill Medvedow was elated. “People are amazed when they turn a corner, walk down the hallway that faces the American pavilion, and see the total transformation,” she said.
With wooden columns and a thatched roof reminiscent of an African palace, the building itself has become a sculpture, which Leigh has named “Facade”. Leigh’s reinterpretation of the Jeffersonian building is intentionally contradictory. Inspired by the Cameroon-Togo pavilion at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, Leigh’s façade draws inspiration from an event in which France showcased the buildings, cultures and people under its colonial rule. “She juxtaposes these two stories. Stories that have kept so many people, so many black women, from sovereignty – the title of the exhibit,” Medvedow said.
At the opening day press conference, Leigh explained that the title of the exhibit, “Sovereignty,” was her way of conjuring up ideas about self-determination. “The real focus of black feminism is our desire to be ourselves and to be in control of our own bodies,” Leigh said.
Asked what it means to represent the United States, Leigh explained: “One idea intellectually – it’s really important to me – is that we have to get rid of the idea of nationalism if we want to move forward. .” This thinking aligns with how the artist approaches her art, which she has called a “creolization,” the blending of cultures to create something new, or in this case, the blending of material cultures and history of the African diaspora to conceptualize his art. Leigh’s sculptures point to something beyond national histories and cultures to a shared truth among black women in the diaspora.
Survey the American Pavilion and the thatched roof makes the building part of the natural environment, blending into the surrounding greenery. Crowds formed outside the building, where people lined up to view the work. Delita Martin, an engraver from Houston, watched in awe. “It’s so immersive, and it gets you into the work,” Martin said. “It actually makes me think about womanhood and my connection to the past, my history, my cultural history, the history with my family.”
“It actually makes me think about womanhood and my connection to the past, my history, my cultural history, the history with my family.”
Enter the exhibit and a bronze statue of a Jamaican woman washing clothes stands in a reflecting pool. Inside, bronze and ceramic sculptures adorned with raffia and cowries are arranged in immaculate white rooms. A film created by Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich depicting a burning effigy plays in the background. “Sentinel”, a 16-foot-tall sculpture, stands in the exhibit’s gallery rotunda, catching visitors’ eyes. Lewis Long, the founder of Long Gallery Harlem, was one such visitor. “It’s strong, big, taking up space, holding space, commanding,” Long said.
Although deeply researched, Leigh’s works are minimalist, emotive and inventive. This is what struck Jalan and Jibril Durimel, two twin photographers visiting Venice from Paris. “Because of the intensity and violence of our story, it’s almost like we have this obsession to revisit it,” Jalan explained. The two agreed that sometimes the subjects tackled by black artists are so heavy that the work can get lost in meaning. But they found Leigh’s work to be the opposite. “Maybe I’m reductive, but when I saw the show, it just touched me in a sense of beauty and form,” Jibril said. “It moved me in that way, and I was happy, and I was satisfied and inspired by that alone.” Although the art was inspired by black history and culture, there was a certain levity to it.
“Some artists try to reach you intellectually, conceptually. We don’t feel very well,” explained Andrea Seehusen, visitor and artistic adviser from Munich. She said she felt walking through the exhibit was an experience of pure beauty and described Leigh’s sculptures as inviting. “I think she found a way to get into everyone’s hearts, and that’s what it’s meant to be, in order to create a more inclusive community,” Seehusen said.
While Leigh’s statues are striking regardless of the viewer’s background, she has been clear that her primary audience, as well as her inspiration, are black women. Shante Mitchell, a visitor from Memphis, said the bronze and ceramic sculptures made her feel connected. “I’m not alone in some of the things that I think and feel,” Mitchell said. “And she put it into art.”
During the opening week, Leigh won the Golden Lion for Best International Show Entrant. In October, the artist will host “Loophole of Retreat”, a series of talks led by black scholars, writers and artists in Venice. After that, his works will return to the United States where the ICA organizes the artist’s first major survey exhibition. The first leg of the traveling tour will be in Boston, at the ICA.