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Story Publication logo August 26, 2023

How Artist Simone Leigh Helps Me Embrace My Hyphenated Identities


This project investigates how race, gender, and nationality impact the reception of artistry in the...


Simone Leigh’s layering of Black women’s experiences across generations and cultures shows me the beauty in existing in the ‘in-betweens.’

Back view of Martinique (2022) facing Cupboard (2022), both by Simone Leigh, in her exhibition Sovereignty (2022) in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale. Two women, Ming Joi Washington and Jordan Burrant, walk side by side between the works. Image by chris d. reeder. Italy, 2022.

I am a cultural transplant. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, surrounded by family and friends with similar culinary palates and musical tastes as mine but I was raised in rural Deerfield, Massachusetts, where miles of cow fields separated me from the next closest Black family. Growing up, this dichotomy, coupled with a year living in France, often made me feel like an outsider; I did not fit comfortably within one or even two borders, whether geographic or identity-based.

Multidisciplinary artist Simone Leigh is chief among the myriad Black American artists and intellectuals whose work and lived experiences help my loneliness subside. 

Before becoming acquainted with Simone Leigh's work for the first time the summer before my senior year at Spelman College, my construction of a genealogy chart including the scholars and artists who guide my voice and understanding of place was well underway. As an International Studies and French double major at Spelman, I took classes centered around global Black experiences, including African Diaspora and the World, Black Women in Latin America, and Survey of Francophone Literature. The latter included texts by writers of African descent living in former French colonies, namely Suzanne and Aimé Césaire and Paulette and Jeanne Nardal. Further back, I had completed my high school capstone project on Black American visual, literary, and performance artists who expatriated to France throughout the 20th century, such as James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis. I had compared their experiences with race in the nation to mine. My introduction to these other scholars and artists was the operative component in making my experience of Simone Leigh's oeuvre in Venice, Italy, so astounding. The diasporic connections in her works set my mind ablaze as I saw the teachings throughout my life illuminated in harmony in Leigh's works like Martinique (2022).

Martinique (2022) by Simone Leigh in her exhibition Sovereignty (2022) in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale. Image by Nailah Reine Barnes. Italy, 2022.

When I encountered Martinique in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale, her color and stance enraptured me instantly. She stood saliently in a shimmering blue glaze beside the deep grays, milky whites, and rich obsidian blacks of most of Leigh's works that I had seen and studied up to that point. Her "power-pose"—hands supporting bosom, straight back, and even shoulders—radiated authoritative energy around the gallery. She transported me to moments throughout my life when I have held similar stances in front of mirrors to prepare for speaking events or meetings to help me embody the energy I wanted to emanate.

The sculpture's namesake is an island in the Caribbean that the French colonized in 1635. Colonial settlers forced the Indigenous Carib peoples out, and for over two centuries, the French enslaved Africans to convert sugarcane into sugar and rum. Martinique remains a French territory to this day.

I interpreted Simone Leigh's Martinique as a counter-narrative to the romanticized and saccharine stereotypes of Martinican women that the French established to help justify slavery and exploitation of Martinican people and land. The sculpture's glaze reminded me of caramelized sugar and thus speaks to the horrors of enslavement on the island. Her headlessness is a critique of ongoing colonialism in the region; it's as if she refuses to continue being controlled by its imperial forces acting under the guise of benevolence. Overall, Martinique echoes 20th-century Martinican author Suzanne Césaire's text: "Too bad for those who consider us mere dreamers. The most unsettling reality is our own. We shall act."*

Several other works in Leigh's oeuvre that I love have overt and nuanced diasporic connections, such as Jug (2022), which references the legacy of enslaved Black American potters of the Edgefield District in South Carolina. Last Garment (2022), a larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture depicting a laundress at work, reclaims an extracted image that colonial forces used to perpetuate the myth of the "noble savage" throughout the Caribbean. All three of these works, Martinique, Jug, and Last Garment, are currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston as a part of Leigh's retrospective survey titled Simone Leigh. I implore you, dear reader, to visit this exhibition.* It will move you deeply.

Leigh's artistry and intellect elucidate how the creation of the diaspora is ongoing and how critical fabulation*—the practice of making productive sense of the gaps and silences in the archive of transatlantic slavery—is radical and essential. I am grateful that Leigh's constellation of historical, contemporary, and critically fabulated touch points has helped me connect profoundly to my roots as a Black American young woman and expand my understanding of belonging, beauty, unity, and community.

Last Garment (2022) by Simone Leigh in her exhibition Sovereignty (2022) in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale. Image by Kayla Diego. Italy, 2022.

Jug (2022) by Simone Leigh in her exhibition Sovereignty (2022) in the U.S. Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale. Image by Ming Joi Washington. Italy, 2022.

Author's Notes:

*Susanne Césaire, Tropiques, no. 5, April 1942.

*The Simone Leigh exhibition leaves the ICA Boston on September 4, 2023. It will tour to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (November 2023–March 2024) and a joint presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles (June 2024–January 2025).

*Saidiya Hartman, Ph.D., a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, coined the term critical fabulation in her essay "Venus in Two Acts."


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