On view amidst the bustling landscape of the Venice Biennale’s Giardini pavilion, artist Simone Leigh has transformed the U.S. Pavilion, covering its surface with a thatched roof and situating one of her iconic sculptural arrangements outside. The show, which features a new body of work made for the show, continues her interest in performativity and affect, drawing on the artist’s expansive practice to explore the construction of Black femme subjectivity.
Throughout the pavilion’s classically appointed structure, Leigh’s works mine and reinterpret the architecture and layout, using the rounded cupolas and smaller rooms to pose series of sculptures against each other to masterful effect. These large-scale sculptural works join forms derived from vernacular architecture and the female body, rendering them via materials and processes associated with the artistic traditions of Africa and the African diaspora. Using a range of vocabularies, derived from a range of Afrian cultures, and posed against 20th century movements and cultural moments, her works are a strikingly elegant interpretation of multiple histories at once, culling together deep historical time in exchange with the history of the American landscape and that of modern art. Many of the featured sculptures interrogate the extraction of images and objects from across the African diaspora and their circulation as souvenirs in service of colonial narratives. Though Leigh’s figural works present their subjects as autonomous and self-sufficient, they do not simply celebrate the capacity of Black women to overcome oppressive circumstances, but rather indict the conditions that so often require them to affirm their own humanity.
It’s a powerful statement, one that arrives on the heels of several years of social turbulence following in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the United States, and the ensuing conversations around violence and oppression against African-American citizens. Leigh, taking this energy, uses this context to extend her inquiries further. Questions of identity and culture exist in this continuum, but equally extend beyond immediate context, posing questions of self-determination, self-governance, and the agency for expression and existence, for both the individual and the collective. To be sovereign is to not be subject to another’s authority, another’s desires, or another’s gaze, but rather to be the author of one’s own history.
Already earning its well-deserved praise as one of the standouts of this year’s Biennale, Sovereignty asks questions that push well beyond the present day, posing notions of a culture and world built anew. It’s on view through November 27th.
– D. Creahan
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