Here are excerpts from a review and interview of Simone Leigh by Kriston Capps (Washington Post). Simone Leigh’s work is currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW, Washington, D.C., through March 3, 2024. [Also see previous post Exhibition: Simone Leigh.]
After a groundbreaking showcase at the 2022 Venice Biennale and several other D.C.-area appearances this year, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden hosts the sculptor’s first museum survey.
For her groundbreaking presentation at the 2022 Venice Biennale, American sculptor Simone Leigh took a page from history, borrowing a theme from the sordid 1931 Paris Colonial Expo. That early-20th-century carnival put the cultures of African and Asian peoples colonized by Western powers on display for elite Parisian audiences to consume. In Venice, Leigh covered the United States’ neoclassical pavilion with a facade of wood and grass, turning the Palladian brick building into a thatched hut — an ironic backdrop for sculptures that point sincerely to African forms and history of the African diaspora.
“Satellite,” the 24-foot-tall sculpture that anchored Leigh’s show for the U.S. Pavilion, is now standing tall outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Works from her Venice presentation, which traveled first to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this year, are on view at the Hirshhorn through March 3, along with three new bronzes: “Bisi,” “Herm” and “Vessel.”
Leigh’s turn representing the United States in Venice has rocketed her to international stardom. Counting this latest show, no fewer than five museums in D.C. alone have shown her works this year, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Glenstone, the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art, where another severe bronze holds pride of place in the East Building atrium: “Sentinel” (2022). In advance of her show at the Hirshhorn, Leigh spoke about her studio process, newfound fame and a summer she spent living in D.C. [. . .]
Q: Since your presentation at the Venice Biennale, it seems that every museum in the country has rushed to display or acquire your work. How does that feel?
A: It’s exciting. It’s also overwhelming. I’ve lived outside this kind of glare for most of my life. I didn’t expect to ever have my work be quite this visible. I’m overwhelmed by it right now, to tell you the truth. [. . .]
Q: Tell me about “Satellite.” What’s the origin for this piece?
A: “Satellite” is the kind of subject matter I’ve been interested in for a long time. I like to think about the body and how it can be an apparatus for ancestor worship. There’s a giving and receiving with the body. I’m always riffing on different kinds of African art, sculpture and material culture. In this case specifically, I was thinking about the D’mba mask. The wooden apparatus used for the mask has become popular sculpture to collect in the West. It was included in the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice. “Satellite” is another part of the conversation about African art in an American Pavilion context.
Q: The U.S. Pavilion in Venice is a neoclassical building that resembles Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. For a piece called “Facade,” you obscured the pavilion by covering it with a thatched roof and wooden beams. What does that building mean to you?
A: I was very aware of the building being Monticello-like and referencing that style of architecture and all the content that comes with that. Monticello was built by slaves. It wasn’t that much of a shift to imagine another kind of building that has more early African forms. There’s not as big a gap between the facade I created over the pavilion and the pavilion itself, if you think about how things are made and how value is created. [. . .]
Q: You worked as an intern at the National Museum of African Art. What was that like?
A: I worked with the ceramics curator, and I xeroxed all of these books and pamphlets that described West African and Southern African ceramic building techniques. These are texts that were written mostly by anthropologists or missionaries. I knew a lot of these texts that I was reading were fraught, because of the conundrum of anthropology as a colonial science. In college, I was reading Edward Said and “Orientalism” and starting to learn a lot about post-coloniality, or what we were hoping would become a discourse around post-coloniality. Now we don’t say that anymore, since it’s not like colonialism has really stopped. The museum was relatively new. There were a lot of scholars of African art who didn’t necessarily have a home in the U.S. to gather and have discourse with other people, so it felt very intellectually rich and exciting. It was exciting to be in a library of African art forms. I felt like I got access to a lot of texts. That was wonderful at such a young age. [. . .]
For full interview and photos, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/11/03/hirshhorn-museum-sculpture-garden-simone-leigh/