VENICE, Italy ( Associated Press) – Simone Leigh’s sculptures are making a significant mark at the Venice Biennale Contemporary Art Exhibition.
The first black woman to headline the US Pavilion at an international show, the American sculptor installed a massive 24-foot statue outside a Palladian-style brick building, which she mounted on wooden columns topped with a thatched roof.
Lehigh also sets the tone for the main Biennale exhibition. Her massive “brick house”, a bronze statue of a black woman, presides over the entrance to the armory. Such double quotes are rare at the 127-year-old art fair, the world’s oldest and most important, starting its 59th edition on Saturday.
Leigh titled her exhibition of bronze and ceramics in the US Pavilion “Sovereignty.” That said, the name came from a desire to “indicate ideas of self-determination” while exploiting similarities in black feminist thought.
“One thing we all agree on, the real object of black feminist thought is our desire to be ourselves. And to be in control of our own bodies,” the artist said during the official opening Thursday.
To this end, another bronze sculpture set in a reflecting pool, the “Last Garment”, depicts a laundress at work. Leigh was inspired by a 19th-century photograph of a Jamaican woman washing clothes in a river; The US Pavilion Exhibition notes that the photo represents imagery that supported Caribbean stereotypes at the time.
In this way, Leigh reused a portrait initially painted through a lens of colonialism, literally turning it into bronze.
The work in the pavilion refers specifically to the African diaspora. The raffia-topped façade incorporates a Palladian-style pavilion and its neo-classical pillars, evoking an architectural style that recalls both Jeffersonian ideas of liberty and the plantation houses of slave owners.
The shaggy roof and wooden columns mounted on the colonial-style building were inspired by the Cameroon-Togo Pavilion at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris, an event to showcase cultures under European colonial rule.
“One doesn’t obscure the other. It’s really about their closeness. It’s about bringing their two histories together, problematic, disturbing, and creating new meaning,” said curator Eva Respini.
The US Pavilion’s works will take Leigh back to the United States, where they will appear in Leigh’s first museum survey, scheduled next year at the ICA Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
This is just some of the recognition 54-year-old Leigh has received after two decades as an artist.
Leigh also won the Studio Museum in Harlem’s $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wayne Artist Award in 2017 and the coveted $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, which included a solo show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum the following year.
“It’s like too much is overdue, and it’s an overdue recognition of Black creativity,” said ICA director Jill Medvedo, commissioner of the US Pavilion.
The main exhibit, which features female artists, is curated by Cecilia Alemani, who originally commissioned the “brick house” for The High Line Park in New York City. A 5-metre (16-foot) statue of a woman with a torso in West African architecture, originally overlooking Manhattan’s 10th Avenue; It was installed in Venice two days before the Biennale opened for previews.
“She stands there with so much glory and such beauty. She doesn’t have eyes, but she has a very strong eye,” said Alemani. “I am so happy to have that idol on the show and to see Simone finally qualify for the US Pavilion.
The Venice Biennale runs until 27 November.