On January 22, Simone Leigh’s statue Sentinel (Mami Wata), 2020–21, was placed in Egalité Circle in New Orleans. The circle, formerly known as Lee Circle, once held a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee that was removed in 2017.
Sentinel (Mami Wata) was placed in Egalité Circle as part of the fifth edition of the Prospect New Orleans triennial, which finished its run this past weekend. The work will remain on view until July 22. After that, the space will be open for future artistic collaborations. Leigh’s sculpture will remain at the site until the first week of August.
After mounting the sculpture in New Orleans, Leigh showed her work at the Venice Biennale in Italy, where she represented the U.S. and also appeared in the main exhibition. She won the Golden Lion award for her participation in Cecilia Alemani’s curated show.
Leigh’s bronze sculpture aims to undo the legacies of power that the Lee statue represented, and was specially designed for the Prospect 5 and the Circle. The sculpture depicts a snake wrapped around a slender female body whose form resembles a spoon.
The design is inspired by the various cultures of African diaspora that mix and flourish in New Orleans. Mami Wata is a water deity shared by many African cultures, while the spoon shape is an important symbol of status in the Zulu culture.
Even the placement of the sculpture seeks to subvert the hierarchies established by the Lee monument. Unlike the monument, which was placed on a pedestal, Sentinel sits on the ground in front of the raised platform.
Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, the artistic directors of this 2021 Prospect New Orleans triennial, wrote in a joint statement to ARTnews that this placement had been carefully discussed by the team and the artist. “Ultimately, Simone felt, and we agreed, that because the original placement of the Robert E. Lee atop the pedestal was one of power and domination—the statue loomed over the city, symbolizing the tyranny of white supremacy—that her work should be closer to the level of the individual,” Keith and Nawi wrote. “Her work is monumental, but its placement at the base of the sculpture suggests the way in which it is meant to be in dialogue with the people of the city.”
Update, 7/21/22, 12:25 p.m.: This article has been updated to include mention that Leigh’s sculpture will come down in August.