She’s Mighty, Mighty: Simone Leigh at Luhring Augustine
by David C. Shuford (Class of 2020)
Along U.S. Highway 61, just south of Natchez, Mississippi, the grotesque caricature of an Aunt Jemima figure, replete with oversized white eyes and an awkward smile, sits fixed atop a dome-shaped brick restaurant erected in 1940. Over the ensuing decades, the skin tone of the figure has faded, even been plainly whitewashed to reduce the racial animus, but though the business has changed hands its original name, Mammy’s Cupboard, has been maintained by the current ownership. This landmark of racist bad taste, once immortalized in Edward Weston’s unsettling photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi (1941) has more recently been appropriated by artist Simone Leigh in several works that utilize the rounded vault as a point of departure. In her eponymous debut show at Luhring Augustine (September 8 – October 20, 2018), Leigh presented Cupboard VIII (2018), a stately but provocative variant with outstretched arms, a bare chest and a bulbous, open-mouthed pot for a head. A thick raffia skirt makes explicit reference to West African ritual costumes, which often incorporate these billowing leaves. The head is more jug than face, touching upon another tradition of black diasporic art, the vernacular ceramic forms of the Southeastern United States. The vessel tilts forward at a slight angle, as if pouring out a psychic libation for those that approach, a kind of sheltering gesture that allows power, wisdom, and ethical certitude to replenish itself. Leigh has described her work as investigating “black women as containers of knowledge and as containers of trauma.” 1 In this piece she has transformed a building advertising crude, antebellum fantasies into a welcoming figure for those women, previously discounted and taken for granted.
Born in Chicago in 1967, Leigh attended Earlham College, graduating with a degree in art and philosophy in 1990. A decade later, she immersed herself in clay work at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and the Watershed Center in Maine, culminating in an artist’s residency in 2004 at Greenwich House Pottery in New York City. In the ensuing years, Leigh transitioned from fine craft outlets into more “mainstream” art venues, expanding her practice to include video and installation. Her Free People’s Medical Clinic, presented by Creative Time in 2014, showcased her ardent political engagement as she set up a holistic medical clinic open to the Brooklyn public, basing the title on the community enriching efforts enacted by the Black Panther Party in its nascent days. Despite the advent of the post-World War II “studio craft” movement, which manifested nonfunctional, exclusively expressive features in traditional forms, the contentious division of craft and art that prioritizes the aesthetic object over the functional, lingers even today. However, the direct social import and critique of representation in Leigh’s work marks her production as art more clearly than any reference to medium or technique. A piece like No Face (Bronze) (2018) demonstrated the dearth of recognition that black women have surmounted throughout their struggles: the hollow head reflects a literal blindness not of the rendered subject but rather of those more privileged onlookers who have failed to consider what the contours of her life might entail.
Leigh has developed a personal iconography steeped in her heritage, often accreting elements through artistic projects and experiences. Her participation in both the International Art Programme in Lagos, Nigeria in 2012 and Dak’art 2014, a biennial of contemporary African art in Senegal, reflect her interest in activity beyond the typical global centers of art commerce. Presented at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center in 2014, Gone South marked her first endeavors toward exploring the folk art traditions of the Southeastern United States, specifically through forms like face jugs and bottle trees, what Leigh has called “African Americana.” Her versions of face jugs appear much more noble and solemn than the typically fantastic expressions of the folk art tradition, whose oft-wrenched features are commonly attributed to the need to scare children away from the valuable or intoxicating contents of such vessels. In 102 (Face Jug Series) (2018) at Luhring Augustine, Leigh transfigured this humble convention and realigned it closer to the artistic legacy of West Africa, recalling the depictions of royalty and warrior classes in the Benin Bronzes of the Edo people, or the Ife Head of the Yoruba.
Simone Leigh’s art has radiated into the limelight over the past few years. Her premier acclaim includes the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, recently bestowed on her nuanced, long-term endeavors. Her most visible project to date, a 16-foot-high bronze sculpture based on a full sized clay original, entitled Brick House will be unveiled as the inaugural large-scale commission on the High Line in New York in spring 2019. Continuing her ongoing series Anatomy of Architecture, which included the recent work at Luhring Augustine, Brick House, according to images of the work in progress, will depict the majestic head of an eyeless woman, whose braided hairstyle elegantly frames her face. Like the works that were on view at Luhring Augustine, the sturdiness of the ridged base encapsulates female power. The 1977 Commodores hit of the same name was actually not the inspiration for Leigh's title; fittingly though, that song's lyrics were covertly written by Shirley Hanna-King, the wife of a band member. In conflating the body of a woman with a hut shaped shelter, Leigh points back to the original housing of all human offspring, the womb whose encompassing reality subsumes the fetus entirely. In one of poet and feminist writer Audre Lorde’s most famous formulations, she notes that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house...this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.” 2
Leigh is certainly not fearful in her poised stance. Through her work, she proposes creating new dwellings entirely—ones made from the boundless, occult stores of African and black American culture—to replace the repressive structures that have been erected with extreme disregard for black women, frameworks that have all too often denied their personhood.