Artist Simone Leigh’s representation of the U.S. Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia opens this week to previews, before debuting to the public on April 23.. Co-commissioned by Jill Medvedow, the Ellen Matilda Poss Director, and Eva Respini, the Barbara Lee Chief Curator at the The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA), and curated by Respini, Leigh presents her inimitable, large-scale sculptures, the magnificence of which brings viewers face-to-face with the Black female presence and experience.
Leigh’s commanding and elegant works generate heightened discourse and visibility of race, gender, labor, history, and monuments—rescuing and re-shaping the dynamic histories and interior lives of Black women. The special project embodies a partnership with the Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, with Nikki Greene, Assistant Professor of the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora at Wellesley College, and Paul Ha, Director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, serving as advisors.The artist’s work will be on view through November 27.
“Simone Leigh is one of the most gifted and respected artists working today. For the U.S. Pavilion, Leigh will create a series of new sculptures and installations that address what the artist calls an ‘incomplete archive’ of Black feminist thought, with works inspired by leading Black intellectuals. Her work insists on the centrality of Black female forms within the cultural sphere, and serves as a beacon in our moment,” said Respini.
The artist finds inspiration in the creative practices within Africa and its diaspora. “The creolization of form,” is Leigh’s coined term and approach for combining diverse cultural languages: 19th-century West African art, Black American material culture, and a colonial history of international exhibitions.
Leigh has imagined and created a new exhibition of figurative sculptures especially for the Biennale; the pieces set in stone her passion to give voice to the struggle and influence of Black women globally and historically. For the pavilion’s open-air courtyard, Leigh has made a towering sculpture in bronze, a new material for the artist. Interdependent works of raffia, ceramic, and bronze will be displayed throughout the five galleries in the pavilion.
During the Biennale, Leigh unites international activists, scholars, and fellow artists for a notable project, Loophole of Retreat: Venice; the exclusive three-day symposium consists of presentations, performances, and conversations focused on the creative and intellectual labor of Black women. Seeds grew from the 1861 autobiography of Harriet Jacobs, a woman who escaped from slavery to hide for seven years in a crawlspace she called a “loophole of retreat”: both an enclosed space and one of emancipation—allowing the expansion of ideas, plans, and visions of freedom.
In celebration of the artist, the U.S. Pavilion has launched a website dedicated to Leigh’s exhibition and initiatives. The site presents behind-the-scenes footage of Leigh in the midst of producing her new work, filmed by visual creator Shaniqwa Jarvis. Targeted educational programs in Venice include ICA’s pairing with Spelman College, engaging students in Leigh’s artistic methodologies, and the Institute’s collaboration with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, creating local school curriculums drawn from Leigh’s empowering artworks.