Simone Leigh’s stellar presentation for the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year will now tour America, starting at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Boston this month before travelling to Washington, DC and Los Angeles. It is “the nucleus of the larger story” of Leigh’s work, says Eva Respini, the ICA Boston curator who also organised Leigh’s Venice showing. Bewilderingly, given her prominence in recent years, Leigh has not had a US museum survey until now. It is “equally shocking”, Respini says, that Leigh’s first monograph is only now being published, to accompany the show.
Respini hopes that “people will see a through-line” in Leigh’s career, where ideas and form are “articulated, reiterated and, I would say, even re-performed”. The artist, born in Chicago in 1967, has “crafted her own unique visual language”, mining and developing certain materials like ceramics and raffia, to create “layers of histories across diaspora… whether they’re from the African continent, the Caribbean or early American references”, Respini explains. “The idea of situating Black women and their subjectivity in everything she does, it’s there from the beginning,” she adds.
Leigh’s eyeless female figures are often sculpted into a “bell-shaped or dome-shaped form, which on one hand looks like a skirt and on the other hand looks like a dwelling… you see this form articulated over and over again. The cowrie shell is another example.”
Respini regards the Boston show as “a homecoming”. The Venice pavilion was all the more impactful for its beautiful spareness and she promises that the ICA presentation will be “equally incisive… each artwork is carefully calibrated, and has such a big impact on its own”. Some works will be adapted: the pool setting for Last Garment (2022), a bronze sculpture drawn from a 19th-century photograph of a Jamaican laundress, will be realised on the larger scale that Leigh initially intended. It will be situated on the Boston Harbour waterfront, within the site of Massachusetts Bay. “So there will be these breathtaking resonances in the way there was in Venice,” Respini says.
• Simone Leigh, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, 6 April-24 September