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Simone Leigh's work explores how Black women have been misrepresented in art and culture


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Amna Nawaz: Last year, artist Simone Leigh represented the U.S. at what is widely considered the world's most important exhibition of contemporary art, the Venice Biennale. She was the first Black woman to have that honor.

Now there's a chance to see her work in a retrospective touring this country.

Jeffrey Brown meets the artist for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Outside the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., a monumental bronze sculpture, a 24-foot female form titled Satellite, inside, smaller but no less striking works in which artist Simone Leigh explores the representation of Black women by pulling together different materials and forms and pulling from different traditions.

Simone Leigh, Artist: It makes something new. Sometimes, it collapses time. Sometimes, it makes similarities that may have happened over a millennium more obvious. It's just one of the joys of sculpture.

Jeffrey Brown: Leigh went really big in her work and the attention it gained in 2019 with Brick House, towering over New York's High Line Park.

The exhibition now in Washington, some 29 works spanning 20 years, mostly sculptures, but also several videos, was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. It includes major works that were part of her acclaimed Venice Biennale project and a few new ones, heady stuff, perhaps, but, at 56, Leigh is hardly an overnight success.

Simone Leigh: I was told that I wasn't going to make it 1,000 times. So, I think that...

Jeffrey Brown: So, you smiled as you say that.

Simone Leigh: Yes, because there's an idea that art can be anything, but I was being told, but it can't be that.

Jeffrey Brown: That is ceramics, works made of clay and ravishing glazes, usually shaped by hand and fired in sometimes enormous kilns. It wasn't seen as high art by many when she was starting out, she says, but she loved the labor that went into it, the control, and lack of it.

Simone Leigh: And the inexhaustibility of ceramics, even next week, I don't know exactly what's going to come out of the kiln. There's a lot of unpredictability involved. I enjoy that. I enjoy that there's still questions that I have that are unanswered about what I can do with the material and how far I can push it.

Jeffrey Brown: Leigh was born and raised in Chicago's South Side. Her father immigrated from Jamaica and served as an evangelical preacher. Caribbean motifs run through her sculptures, sometimes in the form of plantains.

She also looks to Africa, including Nigerian pottery she studied long ago as an intern at the National Museum of African Art. Now such forms become part of a human figure, as in the sculpture Jug. In Cupboard, she combines a cowrie shell, another favorite motif, with raffia, the fiber from a type of palm tree.

Simone Leigh: It also refers to kind of makeshift building and dwelling. It also...

Jeffrey Brown: But the hut here becomes a skirt.

Simone Leigh: And the hut also becomes a skirt.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Simone Leigh: So, I like that combination. I like all the different histories that come together as they're carried both by the material itself and also the forms referenced.

Jeffrey Brown: So, each different kind of material here is also carrying...

Simone Leigh: Carries histories with it, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Histories.

Many of Leigh's women lack eyes. She says they're both figurative and abstractions. And her work always begins with ideas of how we value craft and labor versus art, most of all, how Black women have been represented, misrepresented, or simply ignored, including in popular culture. Some of her early work referenced Uhura, a character on "Star Trek."

Simone Leigh: And I remember playing "Star Trek" with my friends when we were younger, and we had the complication of there was only one Black girl character. And so we would fight over who got to be Uhura.

So, it's always been something that, even subconsciously, I was aware of.

Jeffrey Brown: Cupboard itself plays off the racist imagery of Mammy's Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi, captured in a 1941 photo by Edward Weston.

Simone Leigh: I hope that my work shows a more nuanced, more subtle, more bold, more complicated, and more varied representations of Black women.

Jeffrey Brown: And Leigh reframes colonial imagery. She covered the U.S. Pavilion at Venice with a raffia hut-like facade, an echo to a 1931 international colonial exhibition in Paris.

In the run-up to the Venice exhibition, much attention focused on Leigh as the first Black woman to represent the U.S. She says that was important to her, but as part of a larger community and deeper history.

Simone Leigh: There were many, many artists before me that would have shown in the Venice Biennale, Black women artists, had we had a different history.

I have been thinking recently of the metaphor of a relay race. It's just I was the one that's had the baton more recently.

Jeffrey Brown: Simone Leigh's exhibition is here until March and then travels to Los Angeles, where it will show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

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