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Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum hosts a retrospective of Simone Leigh's work

Simone Leigh, <em>Satellite</em> (2022), installation view in front of the Hirshhorn Museum entrance on Independence Avenue. Bronze.
Rick Coulby for the Hirshhorn
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Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Simone Leigh, Satellite (2022), installation view in front of the Hirshhorn Museum entrance on Independence Avenue. Bronze.

As imposing as Simone Leigh's sculptures may be, they all begin with a bit of soil and water.

Take a 24-foot bronze sculpture that stood at the entrance to the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale last year and now greets visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. as part of a major retrospective. Modeled after an African D'mba headdress — usually a wooden relic of the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast — Satellite (2022) lacks eyes and arms but has sagging breasts and a satellite-like concave shape for a head.

The piece began as a clay sculpture before being cast in bronze. Much like other selections on view from two decades of Leigh's ceramic, bronze and video creations, African folktale traditions and African diaspora traditions inform the distinctly Black femme work.

Simone Leigh, <em>Herm</em> (2023). Bronze.
Timothy Schenck / Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
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Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Simone Leigh, Herm (2023). Bronze.

"I try to back off from full-on portraiture," Leigh told Morning Edition. "In my work, I started using forms that I would call anthropomorphic. And as time has moved on, the work has become more and more figurative."

Three new pieces featured in the Hirshhorn exhibition were cast in dark, lush bronze. The trunk of Vessel's "body" is hollow, like a nest or capsule. Herm's bust stands on a tall pedestal supported by a single foot sticking out the back. And Bisi features an enclosure scaled to Leigh's own body and also shaped like a skirt.

Simone Leigh, <em>Anonymous</em> (detail), 2022. Stoneware.
/ Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
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Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh, Anonymous (detail), 2022. Stoneware.

"Often there are forms in my work that refer to enclosure or dwelling or architecture," explained the Chicago-born artist, who is the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.

"Making monumental forms of black women is just absolutely thrilling and as fun as you would imagine that it is."

The Hirshhorn's presentation is Leigh's first museum survey in the U.S. capital, and it's part of a national tour that began in April at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, which served as the biennale's commissioner last year. The show heads next to Los Angeles, touring jointly there via the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.

Simone Leigh, <em>Cupboard</em> (detail), 2022. Bronze and gold.
/ Timothy Schenck/Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery
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Timothy Schenck/Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery
Simone Leigh, Cupboard (detail), 2022. Bronze and gold.

Clay is a humble material historically dismissed in fine arts as crafty and utilitarian. But Leigh found it liberating to fly under the radar earlier in her career because she was working with ceramics.

"I was largely ignored. And that really helped me because I feel like I was able to develop a lot of work as an artist in relative obscurity. And for me personally, that became a great source of strength," she said.

"It's always been interesting to me the way ceramics or this idea of being formed in a kiln environment and changing things by changing the environment mimics identity formation. So it's always been a fun dialogue for me back and forth."

Simone Leigh, <em>Sentinel</em>, 2019. Bronze.
/ Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
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Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh, Sentinel, 2019. Bronze.

The gallery wall appears to be wearing a large, bejeweled pin in Brooch #2 (2008-2023). Bullet- or breast-like shapes protrude out of the center surrounded by plantain forms cast in the kind of pre-stained porcelain used by doll makers to mimic different skin colors. There are varying patterns on the fruit shapes, which look weathered.

"You can change objects in a kiln by introducing salt or soda, but you can also change what happens to an object in the kiln by its positioning, whether it's near the firebox, or what it was next to can affect its color," Leigh explained.

"What I realized is that one of the reasons why I have this long term engagement in ceramics and why it is so interesting to me is that I often don't even know what's coming out of the kiln."

Simone Leigh, <em>White Teeth (For Ota Benga)</em>, 2004. Porcelain, steel, and wire. Installation view, Simone Leigh, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2023.
/ Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
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Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh, White Teeth (For Ota Benga), 2004. Porcelain, steel, and wire. Installation view, Simone Leigh, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2023.

Due to the unpredictability of ceramic work, there is a significant amount of destruction involved in creation here, something Leigh compares to dating.

"Even after 30 years of working, I still have probably a 30% loss rate of everything that I make in my studio," she said. "The way I think of it now is when a sculpture is being built, it's like we're dating. It's not really a relationship until it's really finished. So I don't have an emotional attachment to something when it's being made, so it doesn't hurt so much when they fall apart anymore."

That approach has also helped Leigh develop a different perspective on sculpture more generally speaking, especially when it comes to her large bronze works.

"There's a lack of preciousness I have to building that I think helps me to build in clay modeling for bronze. It's been really supportive to have that kind of perspective on the material," she said.

Simone Leigh, <em>White Teeth (For Ota Benga) </em>(detail), 2004. Porcelain, steel, and wire.
/ Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
/
Timothy Schenck/Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh, White Teeth (For Ota Benga) (detail), 2004. Porcelain, steel, and wire.

During a press preview of her exhibition, Leigh took a question from a writer for The Hilltop, the student newspaper of Howard University, a historically Black research university. The writer wanted to know what advice Leigh might give young Black artists trying to make their way today.

"I think the most thing important things for Black women right now, for me, is to be disobedient, as much as possible," she replied. "Almost everything is wrong for what is expected for the way of a Black woman... And if you're just really cantankerous, it can be helpful. I would also say there's no way to avoid a lot of hard work and trial and error."

Simone Leigh works on a sculpture in her studio.
/ Shaniqwa Jarvis/Simone Leigh
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Shaniqwa Jarvis/Simone Leigh
Simone Leigh works on a sculpture in her studio.

The radio version of this story was edited by Jan Johnson and Jacob Conrad. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton
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