Simone Leigh is making history as the first Black female artist selected to represent the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Her work was proposed by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (ICA) which won the honor to commission the U.S. Pavilion at the international art festival's 59th edition.
Leigh is known for exploring themes of gender, race and history through Black women's narratives and a feminist lens. ICA director Jill Medvedow and chief curator Eva Respini will work with the artist on a series of sculptures that will be on display from April 23, 2021 through Nov. 27, 2022.
In the ICA's announcement, Respini called Leigh one of the most gifted and respected artists working today. “For the U.S. Pavilion, Leigh will create a series of new sculptures and installations that address what the artist calls an ‘incomplete archive’ of Black feminist thought,” Respini said, “with works inspired by leading Black intellectuals. Her work insists on the centrality of Black female forms within the cultural sphere, and serves as a beacon in our moment.”
Medvedow pointed to how Leigh's focus on the experiences of Black women speaks to this crucial moment in history. “I can think of no better artist to represent the United States,” Medvedow said. “The scale and magnificence of Leigh’s art demands visibility and power; it is probing, timely and urgent. We are proud and honored to share this work with audiences from around the globe at the next Biennale in Venice.”
Two other Boston arts leaders are advising the project: Nikki Greene, assistant professor of the Arts of Africa and the African Diaspora at Wellesley College, and Paul Ha, director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center.
The first Biennale took place in Venice in 1895. Over the years, dozens of countries installed their own pavillions to highlight shining, edgy artists including Klimt, Renoir, Picasso and Rauschenberg.
The U.S. opened its Pavilion in 1940 and now it's Chicago native Leigh's turn to fill it with her ideas and the objects she conjures, which are often imbued with traditions connected to the African Diaspora. According to the ICA, Leigh will be installing a monumental bronze sculpture outside the pavilion, then a collection of works made with everything from metal to ceramic to raffia will fill five indoor galleries.
Winning this commission is an opportunity to be something of an art ambassador. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has owned the U.S. Pavilion since 1986 and every two years decision-makers there and at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice work with the U.S. Department of State to present exhibitions by contemporary American artists.
If you can't make it to Venice don't worry. Boston audiences will be able to experience Leigh's creations when the ICA organizes the first survey exhibition of her work that's slated to open at the museum in 2023.