Artist Simone Leigh Makes Meaning with Black Women in Mind

NEW YORK, United States -  Thank you for blessing us. That was the refrain overheard by one patron to artist Simone Leigh at the opening of her highly anticipated exhibition at the Luhring Augustine Gallery in Chelsea. Chicago-born Leigh is a magnet of the enviable kind, possessing a warm desirable energy that radiates from her person, indefatigable to the wrought-iron heavy subject matter she takes on in her sculptures. She even wore a pair of studded white boots to fete the evening - a playful touch to an otherwise simple black ensemble.

Evidence of her captivating spirit was reflected in the guests as well, a mix of art enthusiasts and seasoned collectors, who were a united sea of smiles, even when the lights went down to close the show. It was one of those nights one was merely glad to be present, brimming with the sort of vibrancy and possibility that comes to laud a new artist. But Leigh is not a new artist. In fact, she has been quietly honing her craft in ceramics for decades.

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At 50 years old, Leigh and her story is no doubt one of perseverance. The works unveiled were a continuation of a process utilizing earthen vessels to unpack complex histories "from throughout the black diaspora and their intersection with constructions of black female subjectivity, black feminist discourse, histories of radical resistance, and ethnographic research" as the exhibition notes describe.

Each sculpture is metaphoric on many levels; some faceless or with erased eyes while others detail an intricate weaving pattern akin to a traditional braided style or tightly coiled rosettes. Leigh’s versions recall African-American face jugs from the 19th century that were a remnant of slave culture in the United States, but also relates to Roman-Egyptian ceramic heritage. Three large pieces focus on the upper female form, but reimagined with a bottom of wide raffia skirting that likewise references indigenous hut habitations. Her enduring objects with their erased features force a confrontation with spaces and times that sought to eradicate the presence of black women. Her pieces seem to say resolutely, we were always there.

Some still see her works as mystical, the foundational underpinnings of popular ethos ‘black girl magic’, but it is their ordinariness that makes these works sing. Leigh’s gift is imbuing the everyday object with vast meaning beyond its shape such that the beholder interprets each output in a myriad of ways. It is no easy undertaking, but it is their palatable aesthetic, described as confection by another patron, that belies those spoken and unspoken truths more ugly than their external appearance lets on.

It is the considered execution of these anthropomorphic sculptures that will entice and engage viewers for time to come. More of the public will have that opportunity when her first public large-scale commissioned work is unveiled in April 2019 on the High Line in New York. Leigh stylishly takes on the task in service to a broader representation of black women; she herself a symbol of the beautiful, solid, and always there. On view at Luhring Augustine Gallery until October 20, 2018.