Born in Chicago to Jamaican parents, Brooklyn-based Simone Leigh is an artist who makes sculptures, installations, and video art that examine issues of race, gender, and culture. A trained ceramist, who engages with Black feminist thought, her ceramic females are figural – yet abstract – multifaceted, and inward-gazing. Her figures are rendered without eyes to avoid specific individuation. Leigh examines how objects embody specific cultural traditions and histories through different materials and forms in works that defy the outmoded notion of the female body as a vessel.
Leigh received a B.A. in Art and minored in Philosophy from Earlham College in 1990. She did not attend art school but did take a ceramic class in college. And this clicked with her. After graduation she moved to New York City and worked in an architectural ceramics firm, reproducing tiles for the subway. She felt that her career really started in 2010 with a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
As a sculptor Leigh announced that she “was making my work primarily for black women.” Her sources include ethnography, feminism, folklore, and histories of political resistance. Her work references the art of ancient Egypt, traditional West African adobe structures, the Caribbean, the American South, the Middle Passage, architecture, and craft.
She studied West African and Native American ceramic traditions. Her ceramic work incorporates everyday items into her sculptures as she fuses metal with porcelain and clay to show fragmented elements of the black female body. She makes female-associated vessels, such as vases, urns, and jugs with handles. One sculpture “Jug” depicts a black female bust emerging from a weighty vessel. She uses cowrie shells, roses, and has even used a watermelon – a fruit associated with racism – as a mold in “Queen Bee” and “You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been.”
For her 2008 “Queen Bee” Leigh used black terra-cotta, porcelain, and graphite to create an installation of a chandelier-like object that hung from the ceiling. It is a massive cluster of metallic breasts adorned with gold and sharp TV antennas emerging in every direction. This piece is ornamental, feminine, yet menacing and resembles the multiple breasts of a statue of an ancient fertility goddess.
Her 2012 “You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been“ is an imposing piece of three enormous chandelier-like sculptures, hanging from the ceiling and illuminated by dramatic spotlights. It is a collection of about 65 oversized sculptures of cowry shells made from porcelain and fired in a kiln to give the work a translucent glaze reminiscent of orange peel. In the same year, she created the work “Untitled” and again used the watermelon mold to make a cowrie shell. This work shows the fickleness of value as cowry shells were once used as currency but today have no value.
Leigh made two social practice installations in New York City. In 2014, she co-created “Free People’s Medical Clinic” an exhibition in a Brooklyn community clinic, established by free blacks in 1838. She turned this Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone into a walk-in clinic. There she discovered the group called the United Order of Tents. It was a secret society started in 1867 by formerly enslaved women and is the oldest benefit society for back women in the United States.
In 2016, she made her second social practice installation “The Waiting Room,” exhibited at New York City’s New Museum. This work honored a present-day African American woman who died after sitting in a waiting room for 24 hours in a Brooklyn hospital. She wanted the medical field to address the specific concerns and health issues of black women.
Leigh was selected as the inaugural winner of New York City’s High Line’s series of large-scale commissions. This work is “Brick House” her first public project and her largest sculpture to date. It is a massive bronze sculpture of a 16-foot-high African-American woman. Leigh merges the body of the African-American woman – wearing cornrow braids – with tropes from African architecture. The woman’s dome-shaped torso evokes a skirt-like house, informed by the structures of mud and grass that were the traditional dwellings of people in Togo, Chad, and Cameroon. “Brick House” was placed on the High Line Plinth that bridges 10th Avenue in lower Manhattan and was unveiled in April of 2019. It remained there until May 2021. It will also be seen at the Venice Biennale’s international exhibition in two spaces, the Arsenale and the Giardini.
She has won the Hugo Boss Prize; received a Foundation for Contemporary Art Grant in 2018; and in 2016 won a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and the Anonymous Was a Woman Award. She received other grants from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and Studio Museum in Harlem, among others.
She has participated in the Whitney Biennial and has exhibited in MoMA PS1, the Walker Art Center, Studio Museum in Harlem, the Hammer Museum, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum, and museums in Vienna and Morocco. In 2016, she took over Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park and in 2017 was included in the New Museum’s Biennial. She will represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, which had been delayed a year by Covid-19. This is the first time a Black woman was chosen to represent the United States.
She has had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum in 2016 and at the Guggenheim Museum in 2019. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Art Institute of Chicago, ICA Boston, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and the Perez Art Museum Miami.