Simone Leigh has become the first Black female artist to present a solo show in a U.S. Pavilion. She’d represent the United States in the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2022.
Giardini Biennale is the venue that has hosted the Venice Biennale since 1895. It’s a celebration of some of the world’s foremost artists, and it is a business conference.
The Biennale is sectioned into several buildings called pavilions, which are each constructed by different nations. Her exhibition was going to be titled “Grittin,” referencing grit as a synonym of determination amid adversity. She changed the title to “Sovereignty.”
Instead of following the African building style, Simone Leigh asserts Sovereignty over her roots by using tribal artwork to re-imagine colonialism.
As per her own words:
“To be sovereign is not to be subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another’s gaze but rather to be the author of one’s own history.”
The exhibition is Commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and live from April 23 – November 27, 2022. Leigh nicknamed the sculpture, which looks similar to an African Palace, “Facade.” This is Leigh’s reinterpretation of the Jeffersonian building.
She explained that the exhibition was her way of re-affirming self-determination and sparking a conversation about Black Feminism. She states that Black feminism’s desire is for people to be themselves and to have agency over their bodies.
In Sovereignty, Black Diaspora, vernacular, ritual performances of the Baga peoples in guinea, and early Black American material culture converge in the landmark 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. The exhibition celebrates the affirmation of Black women to their own humanity, presenting them as self-sufficient.
Leigh offers an installation brochure that provides from of her sources for art. One of the installations is Sentinel, a slender, black figure in a circular gallery at the pavilion’s center, with a shallow, white bowl at the top that becomes its halo. This could be interpreted as the theft of identity provided by the overarching actions of white society. The figures have sealed lips and eyes shut tight, but the white halo is above everything in the scene.
Simone Leigh has worked in various media, mainly sculpture and installations, though she’s also well-developed in the fields of video, performance, and social practice. She’s interested in African art, feminism, and exploring the marginalization of women of color. She has called her work auto-ethnographic.