Last year’s Guggenheim Hugo Boss prize went to Simone Leigh, a 50-year-old African-American artist whose time, it seems, has come all at once. From having moved to prestigious Luhring Augustine gallery and selling one of her pieces at Sotheby’s to being an inaugural winner of the High Line new series of large-scale commissions that resulted in Brick House, a 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman with a torso that combines the forms of a skirt and a clay house, which loomed spectacularly over the 10th Avenue all summer. Her exhibition at the Guggenheim,”A Loophole of Retreat” which is on view until October 27, presents a culmination of decades of Leigh’s career out of the mainstream—works across sculpture, video, installation, and social practice. Her artistic practice —always firmly centered on black female experience—is seen principally as a commentary on acts of resilience and resistance that span geographic locations and period eras.
The title of the exhibition comes from the 19th-century account of Harriet Jacobs—a prominent writer and abolitionist. In it, a loophole refers to a tiny crawl space beneath the rafters of her grandmother’s home, where, in order to escape slavery, Jacobs spent seven years hiding from her master. The installation exemplifies a similar “loophole of retreat” that black women are forced to construct in defiance to unjust reality. An archetypal Benin bronze sculpture, enchained and placed behind the intricate latticework of concrete prison-like wall, is enveloped in a sound installation, which mixes female voices that are singing but also laughing and crying. This particular installation is Leigh’s homage to Debbie Africa, a member of black liberation group MOVE, who, in spite of inhumane restrictions, gave birth in prison and managed to hold on to her baby for several days, thanks to the ingenuity of fellow prisoners who delivered the baby and distracted the wardens. This account Leigh has found in the series of articles run by The Guardian that were devoted to still imprisoned black radicals from the 60s and 70s.
Similarly informed are short films by Leigh and her collaborator Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich that are showing daily at Guggenheim’s Sackler Arts and Education Center. The films are inspired by the United Order of the Tents, a secretive organization of black nurses founded in the 1840s by the women involved in the Underground Railroad. The artists re-contextualized it as a communal healing place, located in contemporary Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a wellness clinic that provides massage, acupuncture, and spiritual healing, where images of somber but also playful nurses, clad in 18th-century dresses, are interspersed with singers, musicians, readings of Aimee Cesare, and M.A.S.H references. In a separate video, dancers are recreating a wedding-style entertainment, which is staged as the Order of the Tents’ fund-raising event.
Simone Leigh as a ceramicist cannot be fully understood without the context of her installation, film, and community projects. Her new large sculptures, with titles such as “Sentinel” or “Jug” silently dominate the Guggenheim’s space, but their eye-less faces defiantly refuse a viewer’s gaze. Their forms merge human bodies with domestic vessels or architectural elements that bring together the vernacular forms of West African clay huts and urban infrastructure, time and again elevating the strength, endurance, and integrity of a black woman as mythical “brick house” and a literal shelter from a storm.
“My primary audience is black women,” Simone Leigh said, which gave some in the art world pause. But the Guggenheim has addressed that by placing Leigh’s exhibition within the space of its current main show— “Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection” — the first-ever artists-curated exhibition mounted at the museum. Leigh’s work is placed right between the spaces dedicated to artwork selected by two other female artists— Jenny Holzer and Carrie Mae Weems.
Jenny Holzer’s selection is assembled under the title “Good Artists,” which is a riposte to famous 1971 essay by art historian Linda Nochlin “Why There Have Been No Great Women Artists?”, while Carrie Mae Weems, an established African-American photographer best known for her black-and-white Kitchen Table series, has chosen black-and-white palette as a motif for her selection, which is titled “What Could Have Been.” In their choices, both artists are acknowledging the lack of representation and diversity in Guggenheim collection. The exhibition curated by Weems brilliantly centers on Joseph Beuys’s Jungfrau (1979) installation, consisting of a simple table and chair, chalkboard, and suspended light bulb. The installation, which elucidates Beuys’s notion of art as a place for social change founded on learning and analysis, reinforces the idea that the chair is empty, and the seat at the table of art history which the work of Simone Leigh so forcefully demands is hard to secure for long.