US artist Leigh recasts colonial imagery at Venice Biennale

Apr 21, 2022, 8:29 AM | Updated: 9:03 am
A woman takes pictures of the installation "Brick House" by artist Simone Leigh during the 59th Bie...

A woman takes pictures of the installation "Brick House" by artist Simone Leigh during the 59th Biennale of Arts exhibition in Venice, Italy, Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

(AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Simone Leigh’s sculptures are making a monumental impression at the Venice Biennale contemporary art exhibition.

The first Black woman to headline the U.S. Pavilion at the international show, the American sculptor installed a monumental 24-foot sculpture outside the Palladian-style brick building, which she topped with a thatched raffia roof on wooden columns.

Leigh also sets the tone for the main Biennale exhibition. Her towering “Brick House,” a bronze bust of a Black woman, presides at the entrance of the Arsenale. Such double citations are rare at the 127-year-old art fair, the world’s oldest and most important, opening its 59th edition on Saturday.

Leigh titled her exhibition of bronzes and ceramics at the U.S. Pavilion “Sovereignty.” The name, she said, came out of a desire “to point to ideas of self-determination” while tapping commonalities in Black feminist thought.

“One thing we all agree on, the real purpose of Black feminist thought is our desire to be ourselves. And to have control over our own bodies,” the artist said during the official opening on Thursday.

To that end, another bronze sculpture set in a reflecting pool, “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 U.S. Pavilion exhibition notes say the photo represents the imagery that at that time supported stereotypes of the Caribbean.

In this way, Leigh reappropriates a portrait initially depicted through a lens of colonialism, literally recasting it in bronze.

The works in the pavilion refer specifically to the African diaspora. The raffia-topped façade covers the Palladian-style pavilion and its neo-classical columns, redressing an architectural style that recalls both Jeffersonian notions of freedom and the plantation homes of slaveowners.

The shaggy roof and wooden columns imposed over the colonial style building were inspired by the Cameroon-Togo Pavilion at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition in Paris, an event meant to display cultures under European colonial rule.

“One doesn’t obscure the other. It’s really about their adjacency. It’s about bringing together their two histories, problematic, troubled, and creating new meaning,” curator Eva Respini said.

The works from the U.S. Pavilion will follow Leigh back to the United States, where they will appear in Leigh’s first museum survey, set for next year at the ICA Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

This is just some of the recognition heaped on Leigh, 54, after two decades as an artist.

Leigh also won the Studio Museum in Harlem’s $50,000 Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize in 2017 and the prestigious $100,00 Hugo Boss Prize, which included a solo show at New York’s Guggenheim museum the following year.

“It is overdue like so much, and it is an overdue recognition of Black creativity,” said ICA director Jill Medvedow, commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion.

The main exhibition, which features a preponderance of female artists, is curated by Cecilia Alemani, who originally commissioned “Brick House” for The High Line park in New York City. The 5-meter (16-foot) sculpture of a woman whose torso is in the form of West African architecture originally overlooked Manhattan’s 10th Avenue; it was installed in Venice two days before the Biennale opened for previews.

“She stands there with such majesty, and such beauty. She does not have eyes, but she has this very strong gaze,” Alemani said. “I am very happy to have that sculpture in the show and for Simone to finally get the deserved merit at the U.S. pavilion.

The Venice Biennale runs through Nov. 27.

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US artist Leigh recasts colonial imagery at Venice Biennale