“Cupboard VIII” (2018, stoneware, steel, raffia and Albany slip), 125 inches by 120 inches.
Last fall, luxury German fashion house Hugo Boss, in partnership with the Guggenheim Museum, bestowed its biennial award on New York- and Philadelphia-based African-American artist Simone Leigh. The Hugo Boss Prize comes with $100,000 and a solo exhibit at the museum, which goes on show this month. In Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat, Leigh continues the theme her work has come to embody, that of telling the stories of black women, primarily through ceramics. Her creations raise the question of black female identity in a medium that itself has been “historically underrecognized,” says Susan Thompson, associate curator at the Guggenheim and co-curator of the exhibit. “Simone is clear in her intention to address black women in works that emphatically center their histories and reflect their experiences, offering a much-needed recalibration of entrenched art world hierarchies around material, subject and audience.”
Leigh, who also works with video, installation and bronze, explores this cultural suppression by using materials and forms from the craft traditions of the African diaspora. In Loophole of Retreat, she conflates the black female body with architectural constructions such as the domed mud and grass huts of the Mousgoum communities in Cameroon, the salt-fired stoneware busts softened with rosettes sprouting from their heads and raffia from their torsos. Even more evocative are the vase- and pitcherlike sculptures embodying women’s heads that nod to African-American face jugs made by enslaved potters.
Last year was a banner year for Leigh. In addition to the Hugo Boss Prize, Leigh had her first solo show debut at Chelsea’s Luhring Augustine gallery, and she became the inaugural winner of the High Line’s Plinth Program, a series of large-scale commissions showcased on the elevated walkway. Her work “Brick House,” also unveiled this month, showcases a 16-foot-tall bronze-cast bust of an African-American woman with cornrow braids and a torso that represents a skirt-shaped clay house.
“I was told by everyone I knew in ceramics there was no way I would ever be included in the contemporary art space,” Leigh told The New York Times in 2018. “Because I was largely ignored, I had a long time to mature without any kind of glare, which worked out for me quite well.” April 19-Aug. 4, 1071 Fifth Ave.
Photography by: artwork photo © Simone Leigh, courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York