Already by last Tuesday morning, the consensus around those who’d made it to Venice early for the three-day vernissage, which technically commenced on April 20th, was that there was a clear National Pavilion standout. By the time most of us finally arrived in the resplendent lagoon city, after near 24-hour journeys from the coasts of the United States, Asia, and other stretches of Europe, we, too, knew just which artist was to be most talked about the following days. And we hadn’t even trekked to the Giardini yet.
If you had guessed Simone Leigh, you’d be correct. In her vision for the cooperative-designed 1930 pavilion, the artist representing the US turned the Federalist facade on its face to offer both an aesthetic possibility as much as a historical critique of the building, examining what it means to exhibit for America in the “Art World Olympics.”
“My main thought in approaching the exhibition was to ignore the idea of nationalism entirely,” Leigh said during the opening of the pavilion. Sovereignty, as the project is called, is about bringing ideas of lived experience and the body politic, while rooted in North America, to the global stage.
It seemed every aspect of Leigh’s presentation was thoughtfully connected to context and statement — and this was no immersive installation, but rather a proposal in sculpture, and by sculpture. In an age where art’s meaning has shifted in favor of its impact, Leigh’s pavilion sits firmly in the middle, open to critiques of the curatorial nature as much as it embodies the substance of au courant dialogues. Leigh’s Sovereignty is interpretable, but unable to be ignored.
“I chose the title Sovereignty because I was trying to figure out a way to point to ideas of self-determination,” explained Leigh, who won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for her contribution to the show’s international exhibition. “And also to now the fourth, fifth generation of Black feminist thought, which is a very polyglot, complicated thing. One thing we all agree on, and the real purpose of Black feminist thought, is our desire to be ourselves and to have control over our own bodies.”
It’s not a far leap to understand why curator Eva Respini tapped Leigh for this year’s pavilion against the backdrop of Cecilia Alemani’s overarching theme, “Milk of Dreams,” an inquiry into the changing existence of humanity, including our very vessels of life.
Sovereignty’s first encounter is the transformation of the building itself, whose thatched grass roof is a rebuke to the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition as much as a reference to the dwellings of Africa that such colonialist interpretations exoticized. At the entrance, it’s already apparent that Leigh is offering multiple layers of consideration and speaking to diverse histories.
“One of the other things I’ve tried to do with my work and the way I talk about my work is to remind people of other audiences, and that I have those other audiences, specifically Black women, in mind,” Leigh said in her opening remarks.
Moving inside, a black marble pool reflecting the tiered ceiling above immediately occupies the whole room, evoking the architecture of memorials and grand monuments of presidents and fallen heroes of years past. There, wading in the water, is “Last Garment” (2022), a bronze of a bent-over washerwoman of Jamaican heritage (like Leigh, whose parents came to the US as missionaries from the Caribbean island nation.) The figure was drawn from a vintage postcard depicting colonial stereotypes that still persist in too many Americans’ perceptions of Blackness today. With the sky beaming through, reflecting back in the water, it’s not hard to feel the notion of the American Dream mirrored as an illusion. The work’s magnitude of scale pushes the walkway to the edges of the room, like a literal push to the edges of society. “Last Garment” was the standout moment in the pavilion, even if other pieces on view were more typical of the works that make Leigh so beloved.
Leigh’s large-scale works of bronze and ceramic, hearkening to Baga masks, Benin sculptures, West African figurative objects, and cowrie shells — as well Egyptian totemic sculpture and the modernist gestures of Alberto Giacometti and Max Ernst — collapse reference and original context into Leigh’s very own creations. They are an amalgamation of modes that are central to understanding the Black diaspora and global contemporary art. These works contain a cheeky conceit, but offer a sincere aesthetic, even if one chooses to read them only on their surface.
And people noticed. “Simone Leigh in the American pavilion is very, very good and plays with the architecture seamlessly,” dealer Ellie Rines of the downtown New York gallery 56 Henry told Hyperallergic. “There are moments of terrific heft.”
Does it matter whose history Leigh’s presentation belongs to? It does, of course. But if a project like this is, as Leigh said, “a free for all, even for critics and scholars” — an opportunity to put forth a Black-empowered point of view on history, artmaking, and bodily autonomy — the intention of owning one’s experience and turning it into something new and distinct is also at stake.
“Black women and Black people in general across the diaspora … We often are getting information from someone who had a different intention than we have,” Leigh said. At the 59th Venice Biennale, Leigh has the stage to put forth information — and her view of the world — with Black intentions in mind. Now, that’s sovereignty.
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