Recalling Our Sonic Sovereignty: The Understated Symbolic Majesty of Simone Leigh

Nov 15, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Façade, 2022, thatch, steel, and wood, with Satellite, 2022, bronze.

It’s hard not to get excited about Simone Leigh, she just gets it. Her larger than life sculptures have a sonic quality that conjures the water goddesses and pays forward the spiritual reparations we need so much as Black women.

Chicago-based African American artist Simone Leigh is known for her striking large-scale sculptures and installations centering Black women, our bodies, and creating nuanced narratives around Black female identity and the idea of a women’s work. Since 1880 Black women have been highest contributors to the GDP whether by choice or necessity, a feat they should be proud of, but are often underpaid for.

Simone, Leigh. “Last Garment” (2022), bronze, 54 × 58 × 27 inches photo courtesy of dalbera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Leigh, whose primary medium is sculpture, began her artistic journey with ceramics often transforming everyday items and vessels such as pots, houses, and common kitchen utensils into the forms and figures of Black women, signifying the significance of their labor, creativity, and participation in every aspect of daily life. Her standing bronze “Last Garment” shows a women working and more than likely finishing up her days work while staring at her reflection in the water. Water serves as a powerful juxtaposition not only as a means of reflecting one’s reality but to cleanse. Many African cultures maintain the spiritual belief of water’s power to cleanse not only in baptism, but rid the body of malevolent spirits that can attach to you daily. Here the woman looks tired after a hard day, but she also can draw strength from her reflection, and with the last ring of that cloth–she is able to wash away her troubles and return to her family.

George L. Cook circa 1875 This photograph depicts African American men, women, and children picking cotton on a South Carolina plantation.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The artist’s hearkens to the cultural traditions native to the African women forced to wear headwraps on plantations as part of their dress code, who found ways to feminize their uniform by making it unique and fashionable for them. To the plantation owner, it was an extension of their authoritarian rule and subjective cultural positioning. Yet to the Black women born in oppression and focused not on the gaze and entitlements of their self-appointed “masters” but in creating beauty and normalcy within a constricted existence.

Every fiber and form of Leigh’s work speaks to the sonic truth of Black female power, presence, and self-assuredness embodies the nature of women from the African Diaspora.

Simone Leigh, “Sentinel.” (2022) photo courtesy of dalbera is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Far too often, the rhetoric surrounding Black women focuses on our lack and not our love. While it’s true we have some problems it is equally true that we are the solution. We are not only subjects who need championing, need to be cared for, are often disregarded. We can also remember to look into the water and see our sisters reflected back with the knowing that we are the only ones to heal us where we hurt.

Leigh’s work is a not-so-subtle reminder of African American women and the magic of their contribution while seemingly elevating the simplistic into sophistication. What Leigh does so masterfully is reverence the ancestral magic of Black women while directing us where to find it. Drawing from her study of various African tribes, specifically the Musgum people, the Chadic ethnic group which inspired her staggering 16-foot bronze bust Brick House, along with architecture Leigh effortlessly brings into focus an existing narrative of the overlooked champion, the regal handmaiden, and underestimated high priestess carrying generations under her hoop skirt.

Simone Leigh’s work has a primal effervescence that makes me want to stand barefoot in the sand dripped in cowrie shells and white rose petals. For this reason alone, she should be crowned our queen. Or she can simply continue to bless us with her gifts for lifetimes to come. Ashe.

Simone Leigh’s first Survey Retrospective hosted by the Smithsonian’s Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is currently on display with three new sculptures from November 3, 2023- March 3, 2024.