Artist Simone Leigh Embodies Self-Determination in the Historic ‘Sovereignty’ at the Venice Biennale
“To be sovereign is to not be subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another’s gaze but rather to be the author of one’s own history.” This conviction founds Simone Leigh: Sovereignty, the artist’s new body of work created for the U.S. Pavilion of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Leigh is the first Black woman to be awarded the prestigious commission.
Comprised of towering bronze works and ceramics, the exhibition continues Leigh’s questions about self-determination, historical erasure, and Black femme subjectivity. She explores both interiority and what it means for Black women, who she’s repeatedly described as her primary audience, to move through the world.
While largely sculptural, Sovereignty opens with Leigh’s reinterpretation of the pavilion’s Palladian-style facade. A thatched roof and wooden columns cloak the stately architecture in reference to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, which celebrated French dominance and extracted and exoticized objects, images, and materials of African cultures. The Jamaican woman hunched over a mirrored pool in “Last Garment,” a depiction Leigh originally discovered on a vintage postcard, similarly rebukes colonialism and the negative stereotypes it perpetuates.
Inside are additional figurative works, including the soaring, abstract bronze piece titled “Sentinel,” which has a wide, sloping head and echoes the squat “Satellite” at the exhibition’s entrance. Evoking the artistic traditions within Africa and of the diaspora, many of the pieces address questions and themes that recur in Leigh’s practice, although they extend her oeuvre, as well. As with her earlier works, cowrie shells make an appearance, emerging from a large, ceramic jug and resting atop a raffia dome in “Cupboard.” The standing bronze “Sharifa,” on the other hand, depicts Leigh’s friend, the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and is the artist’s first portrait.
“In order to tell the truth, you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact,” she says in a statement about Sovereignty, adding in her opening remarks that, “Black women and Black people in general across the diaspora … We often are getting information from someone who had a different intention than we have.”
In addition to Sovereignty, Leigh’s monumental bust “Brick House,” which was stationed at the High Line through May of 2021, is included in the Biennale’s international exhibition The Milk of Dreams, on view through November 27. “Brick House” also won a Golden Lion, the exhibition’s highest award.
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New York-based artist Hugh Hayden (previously) visualizes the ways African traditions are embedded into multiple facets of American culture through a series of cast-iron skillets. Part of a larger exhibition titled American Food, the 26 pans are molded to reveal facial impressions that evoke West African-style masks, blending the cooking tool and cultural object.
Generally established by cooks who were enslaved, southern food includes many of the flavors, techniques, and ingredients prevalent in African cuisine, forming what Hayden sees as one of the foremost culinary traditions distinct to the United States. This direct impact is evident in the physical artworks—the expressive masks literally emerge from the pans—although it transcends the effects on the kitchen. As he writes about “The Cosby’s” (shown below) on Instagram, “I made this triptych as an homage to the indelible cultural impact of the African diaspora on the creation of American entertainment, food, industry, and society.”
Hayden creates the skillets through sand casting, a manufacturing technique that utilizes the granular substance as a mold, which the artist employs as a way to recognize “the imperfectness of the materials, their colonial histories, and the inherent loss of detail in the reproduction process.” He also parallels the sculpting process to the diaspora, considering how the original object is obscured and imbued with cultural significance when it’s finished. Ultimately, American Food celebrates “the indebtedness to African origins in the cooking—as a form of creation of America, Western culture, and Modern Art,” a statement says.
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In a new photographic series artist Ayana V. Jackson explores the colonial gaze and historical portraiture traditions. Figures, all played by Jackson herself, appear in classical poses, draped in fishing nets, glittering flip-flops, and elegant Western gowns of years past. Each figure is inspired by African and African Disaporic water spirits including Olokun, Mame Coumba bang, Kianda, Drexciya, Yenanja and Mamiwata.
A statement from Mariane Ibrahim Gallery explains, “Jackson has used the archival impulse to assess the impact of the colonial gaze on the history of photography and its relationship to ideas about the body. She uses her lens to deconstruct 19th and early 20th century portraiture as a means for questioning photography’s role in constructing identities.”
The artist, who is based between New York, Hong Kong, and Johannesburg, also had a solo show this year at David Klein Gallery in Detroit. Her work has been collected by the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Detroit Institute of Art, Museum of African Contemporary Art Al-Maaden in Marrakesh, and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. Jackson was the 2018 recipient of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship.
This body of work is on view from September 20 – October 26, 2019 in Jackson’s solo show, Take Me to the Water. The exhibition is at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which recently relocated from Seattle to Chicago. See more of Jackson’s photography on her website and Instagram. (via Artsy)
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.