Artist Simone Leigh Reveals Her Plans for the Venice Biennale, Including a Major Symposium of Black Thinkers and Makers

The artist will host a global convening, "Loophole of Retreat: Venice," for the occasion.

Simone Leigh. Photo: Shaniqwa Jarvis.

The title of the U.S. pavilion at next year’s 59th Venice Biennale will be “Simone Leigh: Grittin“—and come fall, the artist will host a major convening, “Loophole of Retreat: Venice,” for the occasion.

The new details about the eagerly-anticipated exhibitionSimone Leigh is the first Black woman artist to represent the U.S. at the prestigious event—were revealed today by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the pavilion’s commissioner, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

“This will be the first time the U.S. Pavilion is entirely dedicated to the experiences and contributions of Black women,” Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s director, said in a statement. “Global in its research and references, intergenerational and collaborative in its lines of inquiry, Leigh’s exhibition will leave an indelible mark on all who visit the pavilion.”

And while many in the art world will make a pilgrimage to Venice for the biennale’s opening in April, Leigh hopes audiences will book a return trip in the fall. Just as she did during her 2019 solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the artist is holding an event—this time a three-day affair—that takes its name from the 1861 autobiography of the formerly enslaved Harriet Jacobs, who christened the crawlspace she lived in after gaining her freedom a “loophole of retreat.”

Simone Leigh, Las Meninas (2019). Photo by Farzad Owrang, courtesy of the artist and the Cleveland Museum of Art, ©Simone Leigh.

Simone Leigh, Las Meninas (2019). Photo: Farzad Owrang, courtesy of the artist and the Cleveland Museum of Art, © Simone Leigh.

Featuring performances, film screenings, and conversations, as well as an international slate of scholars, artists, and activists, the symposium is organized by Rashida Bumbray, director of culture and art at the Open Society Foundations, with curatorial advisors Saidiya Hartman, a professor at Columbia University in New York City; and Tina Campt, professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Key themes include maroonage, magical realism, and medicine. The event “continues [Leigh’s] work of making Black women’s intellectual labor more visible,” Bumbray said. “‘Loophole’ will elevate a global conversation on Black feminist thought in order to nurture the intergenerational and interdisciplinary connections between Black women thinkers and makers.”

The artist’s inspirations reflect the African diaspora, from 19th-century West African art to colonial history, and will become all the more resonant in Venice, given its long history of intercontinental trade and cultural exchange. Her presentation will feature a new series of figurative sculptures representing Black women in bronze and ceramic, including works that Leigh is making at a Philadelphia foundry.

Simone Leigh. Photo by Shaniqwa Jarvis.

Simone Leigh. Photo: Shaniqwa Jarvis.

“Most artists who have the opportunity to work in large-scale bronze will make a cast in clay that then the bronze foundry will scale up to cast into bronze,” explained Eva Respini, the ICA’s chief curator. “Simone is working with the clay models at 100 percent scale, which is incredibly rare…her hand touches everything, and the result of her hand being present in all stages of the process of making is that the works are extremely resonant in person. The attention to every detail, every surface, translates to works that are once personal and human.”

The exhibition’s title is meant to evoke the dual meanings of “grit,” both the physical quality of sand but also the spirit of resolve and determination even in the face of obstacles. More specifically, “grittin” is an African American Vernacular English term that means adopting a posture of protection. For Leigh, it represents the perseverance and stoicism embodied by her figures, as well as the earthen materials she uses to make them.

Following the conclusion of the biennale in November, the pavilion’s contents will be packed up and shipped to Boston, where the ICA will host Leigh’s first museum survey, opening in 2023 and subsequently touring to other venues across the U.S.

Leigh signed last week with New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery after an abrupt split from mega-dealer Hauser and Wirth last month.

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