With her sedate, elegant sculptures enjoying increased visibility, Simone Leigh has been chosen to represented the United States at the 2022 edition of the Venice Biennale in Italy, the world’s biggest art festival. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston is commissioning the pavilion in the cooperation with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, with ICA director Jill Medvedow and chief curator Eva Respini at the helm.
Leigh’s Venice Biennale presentation, which will run from April 23 to November 27, 2022, will be followed by an ICA show in 2023. That exhibition—the New York–based artist’s biggest survey show to date—will include her Biennale works.
“This is an area where the United States productively works with all other countries around the globe, and there’s no better artist for our time,” Medvedow told ARTnews.
Leigh’s Venice Biennale pavilion is set to include new sculptures by the artist, whose work centers Black women and draws on an array of crisscrossing historical strands and references. A monumental bronze sculpture will be situated outside the pavilion, and inside will be works made from raffia, ceramic, and bronze—materials that have become staples in Leigh’s work.
As part of the Biennale project, Leigh is also working with Spelman College’s Atlanta University Center Art History + Curatorial Studies Collective, which aims to cultivate curators and scholars with the hope of launching Black professionals into an institutional pipeline that has historically skewed white. Art historian Nikki Greene and MIT List Center for Visual Arts director Paul C. Ha will act as advisers to the partnership, which will see participants work with Leigh in the run-up to the exhibition and contribute to the catalogue.
Over the past couple decades, Leigh has created a distinctive body of work that pays homage, often in low-key, allusive ways, to aspects of Black history. Born in Chicago in 1967, Leigh has worked in a variety of modes, though she is best-known for her large-scale sculptures, which frequently make use of styles culled from African art. Often, though not always, they feature Black figures whose bodies appear to fuse with various objects; they are usually depicted eyeless and earless.
In 2016, for example, in a presentation put on by the Studio Museum in Harlem, she created the work A particularly elaborate imba yokubikira, or kitchen house, stands locked up while its owners live in diaspora in New York’s Marcus Garvey Park. For it, she created three hut-like forms with thatch roofs, translating an architectural style drawn from Zimbabwe’s Shona-speaking communities for a new locale.
Yet her work has also taken on more expansive forms that include filmmaking, installation, and social practice work. For the arts nonprofit Creative Time in 2014, Leigh created Free People’s Medical Clinic, which welcomed people to attend workshops and medical treatments free of charge. It paid homage to Josephine English, the first Black ob-gyn in New York, and to similar initiatives undertaken by the Black Panthers during the 1960s.
The Biennale pavilion comes as Leigh’s fame ascends in the art world and beyond. In 2018, she won the Guggenheim Museum’s $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and in 2019, she joined Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s biggest galleries. Her work has also appeared in exhibitions such as the Berlin Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, and the Dak’Art Biennale of Contemporary African Art, and such venues as MoMA PS1, the New Museum, the Hammer Museum, and other venues.
Past artists to have represented the U.S. at the Biennale have in recent years included Martin Puryear (2019), Mark Bradford (2017), Joan Jonas (2015), Sarah Sze (2013), and Allora & Calzadilla (2011).
Leigh’s pavilion is set to make history at the Biennale. No other Black woman based in the U.S. has ever helmed a pavilion at the art festival.
“What we’re seeing right now is an unbelievable explosion in the presentation of work of African-American and diasporic intellectuals, creative, artists, writers, and thinkers,” Medvedow said. “It is overdue, really exciting, and critically important, and Simone is part of this flourishing. It recognizes an artist who has been hard at work at making her art and building her art for decades. The decision is based on the importance of her and her ideas.”