Gallery  June 20, 2024  Carlota Gamboa

Simone Leigh's Monuments on Subjectivity

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 26, 2024–January 20, 2025.

The drop-down title poem by June Jordan begins with, “these poems/ they are things that I do/ in the dark/ reaching for you/ whoever you are/ and/ are you ready?” The sentiment that this 1977 “These Poems” begins with is one that speaks to connection, whether that be in a community, to history, or with oneself. 

Jordan— Harlem born poet, professor, and essayist— stood as a literary staple. Her subjects of interest grappled with inquiries of race, class, and gender and were reflective of her surrounding political landscape.

During Simone Leigh's artist walkthrough at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), she discussed how one of her most recent sculptures is dedicated to Jordan. The work, Untitled (After June Jordan), is a 16-foot cone-shaped tower of hand sculpted porcelain cowrie shells— some of which the artist admitted to finishing just days before the show’s opening— that sits in the center of LACMA’s Matthew Mark Galley.

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Photograph of Untitled (After June Jordan). Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

In 1964, following the Harlem riots, Jordan collaborated with architect Buckminster Fuller to draft a proposal called "Skyrise for Harlem." They designed 15 conical towers to house 250,000-500,000 residents with the hopes of creating better living environments for community members. 

However, the project received much backlash and would never make it off the ground. Almost as if one of Jordan’s lost towers emerged from the ocean of Leigh’s imagination, we get to see a re-performance of history in Leigh’s new survey show today. 

It’s no surprise that Leigh’s first major retrospective, Simone Leigh, is one in conversation with other artistic mediums. The Chicago born artist’s study of Black subjectivity delves into various practices, including sculpture, video, performance, and social practice. 

Primarily focused on ceramics, she involves motifs found in African pottery and has described her work as representing "a collapsing of time." The show, which runs through January 5th of 2025, traveled to Los Angeles from ICA Boston and has been curated with split venues between LACMA and the California African American Museum. 

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Simone Leigh's Last Garment. Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Leigh’s interest in positioning the female body in relation to domestic vessels results from her desire to highlight the hidden labor done by said bodies and vessels. Leigh’s piece Last Garment—  featured at the Venice Biennial’s U.S. Pavilion in 2022— is a bronze statue of a girl bent over a washing rock in a large, reflective pool of water. 

The fountain piece alludes to a photograph by C. H. Graves called “Mammy’s Last Garment,” taken of a Jamaican woman in the late nineteenth century. 

Here we see a reclamation of the voyeuristic impulse. Instead of feeding us with the fetishization of a laboring Black body like Graves did, Leigh creates a monument-like figure. While her intention as witness doesn’t explicitly involve altering the figure’s status, the simple intention of transforming her into an immortal bronze statue challenges the idea of traditional busts and effigies. 

Leigh turns the bronze girl into an honorarium of working people whose image was used without their consent, as quiet eddies spiral in the water. 

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Another one of Leigh’s pieces, which harkens to the subversion of classical effigies, is the 2022 piece Martinique. The headless cobalt figure with a dome skirt-like base is reminiscent of another piece by the same name that appears on the cover of Ama Codjo’s poetry collection, Bluest Nude. The series of Martinique sculptures are similar in size and shape to one another, while certain details in the stoneware vary from figure to figure. 

The series of bare-torsoed women engages the viewer to consider various conditions simultaneously. Not only is the trans-atlantic slave trade evoked by reference to the Caribbean island as name-sake— once fabled to be a women-only island— but it also subtly speaks to a mid-19th century moment of Joséphine Bonaparte that once stood in the island’s capital. 

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Even though slavery had already been abolished in France at the time, Napoleon’s Empress was foundational in reviving the malpractice in her birthplace. 

The monument, which stood decapitated for 30 years prior to being toppled during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was an opportunity Leigh seized to readapt an aspect of the island’s story. In addition, the figure’s silhouette can be read from a hoop-skirt to a repurposed hut, allowing viewers to further question the use of symbolic objects and their modern relationship to a Black female body. 

While the Martinique sculptures provide enough detail for a viewer to gauge a certain amount of context, the uncertainty Leigh provides also leaves room for personal imagination to emerge. 

© Simone Leigh, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Simone Leigh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Most of the 17 pieces exhibited in the LACMA are contemporary, having been made within the last three years, so viewers are encouraged to visit CAAM for the full experience. These 13 works more comprehensively showcase Leigh’s evolution as an artist, spanning back to the beginning of her career, and allow viewers to understand what made Leigh the first Black woman to be awarded the Golden Lion in 2022. 

Curators Rita Gonzalez, Naima J. Keith, and Taylor Renee Aldridge believe that “the exhibition’s two-decade scope allows unprecedented insight into how Leigh elevates and monumentalizes moments that have been obscured, as she continually pushes the boundaries of her materials with new methods and larger scales.” 

They continue, “Because Leigh’s work is in conversation with Black feminist thought through a global lens—past, present, and future—this show allows our regionally-specific institutions to focus on diaspora in ways that challenge concepts of local and global, and that connect seemingly disparate contexts of African (American) history throughout the world.”

34.063254910737, -118.3590232

Simone Leigh
Start Date:
May 26, 2024
End Date:
January 20, 2025
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
About the Author

Carlota Gamboa

Carlota Gamboa is an art writer based in Los Angeles.

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