Artist Simone Leigh’s monumental, bronze sculptures punctuate the U.S. pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia’s 59th Art Biennale in Italy. Commissioned by Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Chicago-born artist’s “Sovereignty” opened alongside the rest of the biennale this spring. The first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the nearly 130-year-old event, Leigh often works with sculptures, video, and performance to engage with Black feminist theory, subjectivity, and gap-riddled narratives. Her historic exhibit in Venice interlaces human forms with architectural elements and domestic objects to explore themes of self-determination while interrogating centuries of colonial extraction.
Leigh’s 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture titled Sentinel (2022) greets visitors to the rotunda of the U.S. Pavilion at Italy’s Venice art biennale. Photography courtesy Simone Leigh and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh.
From Last Garment (2022), a bronze figure of a woman bent to rinse clothing in a reflective pool, to Satellite (2022), a 24-foot-tall amalgamation of a ritual mask and an abstracted female form topped by a featureless bowl, Leigh’s artworks recall objects pilfered from Africa and the African diaspora. Her bronze and ceramic creations specifically reference pieces and people exploited for Paris’s 1931 Colonial Exposition, Black American material culture, and artist-collected objects (like the D’mba masks of Guinea’s Baga people). Leigh also reworked her 16-foot-tall Sentinel, a bronze-cast celebration of Black womanhood created in 2020 to benefit nonprofit Color of Change, as a site-specific installation in the pavilion's white-columned rotunda.
Leigh’s (1) raffia, steel, and glazed stoneware, Cupboard (2022), and gallery view with Sphinx(2022). Photography courtesy Simone Leigh and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh.
Leigh’s work at the biennale also encompasses temporarily transforming the neoclassical pavilion’s exterior. Façade (2022), a structure resembling a thatched roof supported by wooden poles that wraps around the building, obscures the original facade and creates a novel backdrop for Satellite. As scholar Saidiya Hartman puts it, in highlighting Black femme experiences, Leigh imbues her subjects with “an architecture of possibly.”
Leigh’s (3) glazed stoneware Sphinx (2022) and (4) bronze Sharifa. Photography courtesy Simone Leigh and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh.
At the biennale’s opening on April 23, Leigh received a Golden Lion Award—the biennale’s top honor—for Brick House (2016). Consisting of a 16-foot-tall bronze bust atop a clay house that doubles as a skirt, the piece, which previously watched over New York’s High Line, is now on display at the biennale’s cavernous Arsenale international exhibition space.
Leigh’s (5) glazed stoneware, Anonymous (2022) and (6) glazed stoneware Jug. Photography courtesy Simone Leigh and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo by Timothy Schenck, © Simone Leigh.
“Sovereignty” will remain open to the public until November 27. In October, “Loophole of Retreat: Venice,” an event curated by Rashida Bumbray featuring a collective of Black women writers, performers, and artists, will be held in conjunction with the exhibition.