Essay by Stephanie Sparling Williams
Sentinel IV, 2020
Monumental in scale, Simone Leigh’s Sentinel IV is silent, still, rooted. At ten-and-a-half feet tall, this slender guardian with its elongated proportions and faceless bowl crown exudes a mystical presence. Bronze becomes sentient in Leigh’s hands—the smooth, black, semi-reflective surface glistens radiantly where it stands in the Anna Hiss Gymnasium courtyard. Despite its featureless façade, Sentinel IV seems to capture and hold vision itself in its deep hollow. The anthropomorphic figure at once holds space and holds court, to use two vernacular concepts in tension—to make space/to take up space.
Over the past decade, Simone Leigh has used sculpture, video, installation, social practice, and performance as critical means through which to pursue and amplify representations of Black feminine forms and to celebrate and serve her primary audience—those who identify as Black women. Drawing upon the quotidian visual traditions across the African continent, American south, and Caribbean, Leigh’s sculptural work in particular engages with diverse Black cultural histories and complex experiences across the diaspora.
Leigh began her artistic career when she took a ceramics class on a whim while studying philosophy in college. She soon discovered a knack for clay and developed proficiency in pottery techniques despite never attending art school. Leigh’s early interest in issues of race and beauty inspired exquisite sculptures of Black women, artworks that saw her now renowned creolization of form perfected.
Over the course of her career, explorations of architecture, history, and Black female figures have catalyzed some of her most profound work, including Loophole of Retreat (2019) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Brick House (2019), commissioned for the High Line Plinth in New York City. Each piece is meticulously researched—the conceptual heft of the artist’s work only outdone by the forms themselves, which range according to her many rich influences. Scholar and cultural theorist Christina Sharpe, poet Dionne Brand, abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, feminist conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady, sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and African American studies scholar Saidiya Hartman, are but a few of the sculptor’s intellectual and creative interlocutors. Leigh has also drawn inspiration from sources as wide-ranging as colonial anthropology, fundamentalist Christianity, and 1970s Afrocentrism.
Given her emergence in the wake of postminimalist sculpture and postmodern artistic sensibilities more broadly, the cultural legacy to which Leigh’s work belongs is part of “a respected lineage of artists who are oriented towards feminist and civil rights activist discourses, such as Faith Ringgold, Barbara-Chase-Riboud, Noah Purifoy, and Miriam Schapiro,” as noted by curator Jamillah James. She argues that, “by centering black women as subjects and audience, Leigh forges her own sense of time that is constantly navigating various histories, while contending with the present and with possible futures.”
Today, Leigh is celebrated for her deep formal investigations into familiar objects, which she reworks in order to destabilize their original signs and connotations. Whether breast fetishes, enlarged cowry shells, or glazed stoneware inspired by antebellum South Carolinian face vessels, these objects represent Leigh’s sustained meditations on Black women and their bodies as a kind of material culture—to use the artist’s words—and as containers for history, trauma, and knowledge. In some of her best-known works, which include the ceramic busts in her ongoing Anatomy of Architecture series (2016), Leigh depicts Black women with exceptionally intricate bodices, ornate floral diadems, and smooth flat surfaces in place of their eyes.
Departing from classical portrait busts, Leigh’s pieces take their inspiration from figurative sculpture across the African diaspora and represent no single individual, but rather exude Black female subjectivity broadly. They are sculpted using dark, richly hued, and textured surfaces, a stark contrast to the historical use of smooth white marble. Artist Lorraine O’Grady describes her first encounter with Leigh’s “women without eyes, these blind women,” as frightening. Upon further reflection, however, the conceptual artist notes the radical and self-preservationist impulse that can be read in Leigh’s formal approach to her sculpture’s eyes, recognizing the lack of eyes—this blinding—as an opportunity to look inside and to see oneself more clearly.
Leigh describes her own approach to Black women as cultural objects through the language of auto-ethnography, the study of communities to which the scholar or artist belongs. The native anthropologist uses their own orientation and access to observe and amplify perspectives typically marginalized. Indeed, one can observe how the artist’s practice is deeply informed by research and participant observation, the work itself produced out of self-reflexive modes of engagement in projects such as The Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014), The Waiting Room (2016), and Loophole of Retreat (2019). Furthermore, this process is both auto-ethnographic in its orientation to the various archives and communities Leigh traverses, as well as phenomenological in its fabrication, as sculpture is necessarily a medium one negotiates in relationship to their own body, both as maker and spectator.
In her more recent work, Leigh explores the Black female form through its material and cultural associations with notions of labor, specifically objects that amalgamate the body with tools for everyday use. Bringing together the Black female body and material culture, the artist focuses on vernacular objects found across the African diaspora that she understands as readymades. In this way, Leigh revisits the modernist cannon as a way to assert a Black female presence; however, significantly, the artist remains untethered by modernist definitions and rules. In Leigh’s practice, these bodies and their existence are strategically disentangled from notions of European whiteness, an impulse emanating from a lineage of artists working during the civil rights, black power, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
The figure of Sentinel IV is one such cultural readymade, and is likely familiar to those who have traveled to South Africa in the last several decades. Used as a ceremonial spoon in its original context, this nineteenth- and early twentieth-century object became popular among tourists drawn to its stunning artistry and portability. In fact, the New York Times and other travel columns catering to international travelers often feature spoons like the ones that inspired Sentinel IV in their destination articles and souvenir guides.
Meant to represent feminine beauty and sensuality, the carved form originated in its use as ceremonial cutlery often accompanying other Zulu wedding rituals. The wooden object, notably anthropomorphized in female form, is the traditional instrument of familial integration, signifying the bride’s entry into her husband’s family and home. It is customary for the spoon to be kept in a woven satchel especially designed and beaded to hold such objects; however, those found in regional tourist shops are often displayed upright, supported by tiny stands. The souvenirs range in size from a few inches to several feet, with designs varying from wide brimmed bowls and thick, beaded stem handles, to delicate, sinuous, and anthropomorphic stems with circular pitted bowls.
The artist’s interest in the history of the African diaspora stems from her fascination with these vernacular objects, and the spoon is one such iconic object in West and South African culture. In many of the earliest ritual spoons, such as ones exhibited at the Louvre Museum in Paris and at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the carved wooden figure is rendered in exquisite detail, complete with intricately defined anatomical parts. Each figure’s cone-shaped breasts, which typically point in opposite directions, also call to mind other objects across continental Africa that celebrate feminine sensuality and fertility.
Indeed, Leigh is not the first artist inspired by African ceremonial spoons. In fact, the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti sculpted his own bronze iteration titled Spoon Woman (1926–27) after ceremonial spoons carved by the Dan people of West Africa. However, the title of Leigh’s sculpture is not entirely didactic. Leigh admits that in actuality all of her works might be called “sentinels”—her use of sentinel acknowledging the persistent labor performed by the Black female form, even when elevated and presented in fine art contexts. With this powerful charge, Leigh names Sentinel IV for its position across expansive historical and cultural milieus, an especially fitting attribution in its current university context.
The artist’s appropriation of the spoon in Sentinel IV subverts its cultural manifestation as an object requiring activation through ceremonial use to receive its power, or commercial exchange to receive its value. Said another way, the Black female form in Leigh’s sculptural practice is transformed into an aesthetic object to be looked at and admired, rather than touched and used, despite its legacy use and its proliferation as a monetized and exported trinket. Leigh simultaneously liberates the Black female form in this instance from a cycle as a ritual implement, and propels this same form into the commercial context of the fine art world. How will this form be read and understood today in its new hypervisible context?
On a campus, in a city, whose own history continues to be shaped by exclusion, violence, and segregation, Leigh’s sentinel stakes radical claim to existence in a moment when Black existence, in particular, is persistently under threat. Sentinel IV holds space and holds court—an apt landmark poised to see, hear, and represent—to project Black presence into the future of The University of Texas at Austin and beyond, while bearing witness to this indelible present.
With thanks to Relyn Myrthil for her research assistance.
Stephanie Sparling Williams