Simone Leigh to Represent U.S at Venice Biennale
By: Tajiya Holland
A Black woman is checking off another “first to do” box. The multimedia artist whose work encompasses Black female subjectivity will be occupying the American Pavilion for La Biennale di Venezia.
The Venice Biennale, founded in 1895, is “acknowledged as one of the most prestigious cultural institutions.” The art biennial is known as the world leader in contemporary art exhibitions. Think of it as the Olympics for art, with thousands of international artists, museum directors, curators, journalists, and collectors coming to the viewings.
The history of the Biennale is quite intriguing as many years were controversial, but its objective is not only to provide pleasure but to provoke critical thinking and new perspectives.
Simone Leigh chooses to bring the Black female experience to the foreground. Her work is primarily sculpture, along with installation and video. Her sculpture works are of busts, figures, hut-like structures, and vessels. Combining African art history, postcolonial theory, feminism, and ethnography develop her works of art that showcase how Black bodies have been discussed and displayed throughout history.
For example, Brick House is a bronze bust of a Black woman with an afro framed with cornrows with cowrie shells at the ends, sitting atop a dome-shaped base. Not only the physical characteristics but taking note of its placement is also telling, as its surroundings are towering glass and steel buildings. “Leigh’s powerful Black female figure challenges us to consider the architecture around us, and how it reflects customs, values, priorities, and society as a whole.” Many know of the term “brick house” to describe a voluptuous female, but it is also used to define a strong Black woman.
As I think back to studying art history, I remember being awe-inspired by Michaelangelo’s David. I remember standing underneath the statue, thinking what everyone else thought, “it’s huge,” but also that embodying heroism is how viewers connect with the piece. Brick House is almost 16 feet tall as Leigh works on a large scale; the art demands attention. When viewers are initially captivated by size, additional information is wanted. Size also relates to how big of a platform Leigh’s work will be on at the biennial. Hundreds of thousands of people will observe and understand on a more profound level, the lives of Black women throughout time.
Leigh’s work brings light to the hardships that are not suitably discussed and taught. Having an entire production representing the U.S. at the world’s most distinguished art exhibition dedicated to Black women, produced by a Black woman is groundbreaking.Zahara Taking her 2nd-grade Class to View Brick HousePanoptica at Guggenheim MuseumJug at Guggenheim Museum
Simone Leigh being in this position is inspiring and can shape-shift not only the art industry but also global society. For centuries, Black women have been excluded from platforms such as art, politics, and social movements. Leigh’s exhibition at the Biennale disrupts this narrative. There is a sense of hope and stimulating encouragement from which more conversations can arise.
To explore what has happened in history is to have an empathetic understanding, which creates the recognition that there is a necessity of not only representation but inclusivity. I believe this can only lead us in the direction upward.