Simone Leigh, one of today’s most important artists, presented her work for the Venice Biennale at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) as part of a national tour that began on April 6, 2023 and will continue through September 4, 2023. The exhibition includes more than 35 pieces, ten of which were on view in the U.S. Pavilion, as well as some of Simone Leigh‘s earliest works that reflect the artist’s ongoing interest in black feminist thought and materials. The exhibition includes recent ceramics, bronzes and videos.
Following its Boston debut, the exhibition will travel to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., from November 2023 to March 2024. The tour will conclude with a joint presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the California African American Museum (CAAM) from June 2024 to January 2025 in Los Angeles. The exhibition is organized by Eva Respini, ICA’s Assistant Director of Curatorial Affairs and Barbara Lee Chief Curator, and Anni A. Pullagura, Curatorial Assistant.
The exhibition begins with interrelated sculptures in ceramic, bronze, and raffia, as well as recent and new works created primarily over the past five years. The exhibition culminates with Simone Leigh is landmark Venice exhibition, presented at the ICA in a layout that evokes the American Pavilion, giving Americans the opportunity to view this historic installation.
The exhibition concludes with Last Garment (2022), a bronze inspired by a 19th-century souvenir photograph of a Jamaican laundress, which explores the history of labor, particularly the anonymous labor of black women. The ICA presentation includes a new, larger reflection pool for Last Garment, situated in a breathtaking location overlooking Boston Harbor.
Simone Leigh‘s work includes sculptures, videos, installations, and social works that place questions of black women’s subjectivity, or identified women, at the center of contemporary art discourse. Simone Leigh‘s art addresses a wide range of historical periods, geographies, and traditions, with specific references to vernacular and craft processes of the African diaspora, as well as forms traditionally associated with African art and ritual, while exploiting historical gaps, inaccuracies, and falsities in material and visual culture. Saidiya Hartman‘s concept of critical fabulation-a strategy that invites historians, artists, and critics to creatively fill in the gaps in history-provides a resonant framework for addressing Simone Leigh‘s work.
The exhibition features both intimate and large-scale works. A selection of Simone Leigh‘s ceramic tabletop busts demonstrates her mastery of ceramics, including references to the tradition of black American folk art face jugs. These references are also found in larger ceramic works inspired by vernacular traditions of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and the African continent, which challenge traditional hierarchies of art and labor. Domestic vessels such as bowls, jugs, cowries, and busts are recurring motifs, and Simone Leigh is revisiting of these forms over time and in different materials underscores the remarkable consistency of her vision.
In her recent large-scale ceramic sculptures, Simone Leigh‘s combines the human body with traditional domestic vessels, evoking black women’s labor and knowledge production. The intersection of architecture with the body is also central to her sculpture, as in the work Cupboard IX (2019), on view in the exhibition. Overall, the Simone Leigh exhibition at the ICA offers a unique opportunity to experience the work of an important artist whose pieces explore themes of history, identity, and representation.