59th Venice Biennale: Simone Leigh gets Lion’s Share featuring female African diaspora
From being the first Black woman to represent the United States at the International Art Exhibition, to the 8-meters-high bronze sculpture “Brick House” that has earned the Golden Lion for best Best Participant - Leigh leaves no stone unturned striving to portray the forgotten history of Black Femme subjectivity, conceptually and materially.
“The Milk of Dreams” of Venice Biennale
Evocative, magic, brilliant – the “most momentous Biennale in living memory” according to The Guardian – a true “women’s Biennale” as, for the first time, there are far more female artists than male ones.
The fil rouge appointed for this year is extracted from the homonymous surrealist fairytale book from Leonora Carrington (1954), sources of inspiration for all artists being imagination, metamorphosis, search for identity, an unprecedented and sensitive exploration of humanity. Cecilia Alemani, this edition’s curator (already prior curator of the Italian pavilion), in her introductory statement of Biennale Arte delicately tackles the multitude of themes sparking from the creativity of artists from all around the world, dividing them into 3 major topics of inquiry: body representation and metamorphosis, the relationship between humans and machines, and the bond intertwining bodies and Earth.
Alemani also points out the parallelism between recent events of the latest years and the inspiration of the Event: “art and artists help us imagine new shapes of coexistence and new, infinite possibilities of transformation”.
The responsibility of the Exhibition in this historical period, according to her, is an empowering one. Biennale 2022 represents all that we sacrificed in these last years: from “the freedom to meet people from all around the world”, to “the joy of being together, the practice of difference, of translation, of incomprehension and that of communion”.
A true masterpiece of an event indeed, bound to gloriously drop the curtains on November 27th.
The US pavilion: a powerful attempt of self-determination
The Biennale Arte is composed of a constellation of exhibitions from several artists throughout Venice, flanked by the display of Pavilions from 80 countries – an entertaining piece of cultural dialogue for the visitors who get to observe National interpretations on the aforementioned subject, open to a democracy of meaning.
> US pavilion’s “Façade”, Biennale Giardini
In the Biennale Giardini we can find the pavilion of the United States, a total creation of Simone Leigh, curated by Eva Respini under the commission of ICA of Boston. The title of the work is “Sovereignty”, an allusion to mixed narratives on independence: to be sovereign is to be author of one’s own history: it speaks for the commitment of the artist to represent the colonial narrative in the States.
It is exceptional by all means – starting from the exterior, which has been conceived by the artists as a sculpture in itself, entitled “Façade”, resembling 1930s, thatch-roofing, West African palaces; it is also a reference to 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition, organized by the French to show off their colonial achievements. The installation covers up the original, neoclassical architecture of the Pavilion, in a significant effort of recovering African History out of the Western surface.
Inside the construction, a whole collection of ceramics unfold before the visitors’ eyes: female bodies made of bronze and ceramics, materials and processes associated with artistic traditions of the African diaspora: “Though Leigh’s figural works present their subjects as autonomous and self-sufficient, they do not simply celebrate the capacity of Black women to overcome oppressive circumstances, but rather indict the conditions that so often require them to affirm their own humanity”; the artist wishes to fill historical records gaps “by proposing new hybridities”, press release of US pavilion reports.
Leigh’s sculptures as an enquiry into Black American material culture
Leigh really searches the core of her works in the historical roots of Black culture, and brings it up through what she is able to make: outstanding art pieces.
At the center of the Pavilion’s outdoor forecourt we can find “Satellite”, resembling a traditional D’mba symbol (“a headdress shaped like a female bust created by the Baga peoples of the Guinea coast that is used during ritual performances to communicate with ancestors”).
Entering the galleries there is ”Last Garment”, a bronze depicting a laundress at work in a reflective pool, referencing a late 19th century photograph taken in Jamaica, a type of souvenir that served as visual support of colonial stereotypes created by the Anglophone Caribbean tourism industry.
“Anonymous“ is based on an 1882 photograph of a Black woman seated at a table “with an Edgefield face jug, an important example of early Black American material culture”, a satire of Oscar Wilde and his aesthetic ideology of beauty that can be found everywhere.
Then there is “Sentinel”, denoting “an important genre of African diasporic artwork called power objects, believed to possess inherent divine energy and knowledge.” The lengthened female figure resembles a ritual object used to manifest fertility.
In the final gallery there is a composition of statues crafted in ceramic and raffia, fundamental for Leigh’s work (even bonzes, which have a clay-based soul). The press release elucidates on her artistic choices: “Taken together, the works in this room demonstrate Leigh’s continued use of forms and processes that have traditionally been gendered and that send up essentialist ideas of the Black femme body.”
> From the left: “Last garment”, “Anonymous”, “Sentinel”
The Golden Lion-awarded “Brick House” incarnates the essence of this research: the elegant, cold bronze portent is related to the stereotype of the ideal Black woman, the opposite of the fragile-looking Western ideal woman. Body planted on the ground, it is a reminiscence of the need of Black women to feel represented and collectively mourn and rejoice.
Indeed, borrowing words from scholar Saidiya Hartman, “critical confabulation” is put into act: “In order to tell the truth,” Leigh proposes, “you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact”.
> “Brick House”, Biennale Arsenale, photo by: Roberto Marossi