Simone Leigh is first Black woman selected to represent the U.S. at Venice Biennale

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The international art show is usually held in odd-numbered years, but was postponed from 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic.

Leigh’s sculptures demand attention because of their size and subject matter, said ICA Director Jill Medvedow, who is co-commissioner of the U.S. Pavilion with ICA Chief Curator Eva Respini.

“She disrupts the historical narrative of over 400 years of United States history,” Medvedow said. “[Her work] has tremendous presence, magnificent presence. It occupies space that traditionally Black female bodies have not occupied. At this moment of overdue reckoning on race and justice, there’s no one better to represent the United States.”

“To be the first Black American woman to occupy the American Pavilion for the 59th La Biennale di Venezia is a great honor,” Leigh said in a statement. “I acknowledge the paradox of my position during this time when the depth of White supremacy in America is in full view. I also recognize that this is a time when Black artists and intellectuals of the diaspora are flourishing and have reached critical mass. My show, comprised primarily of sculpture, will engage the work of Black feminist thinkers who have enlarged and transcended the limits of this democracy.”

Leigh’s selection comes as the ICA is organizing the artist’s first midcareer survey exhibition, which is set to open in 2023. The exhibition is curated by Respini, and works from the biennale will be included.

“Simone has earned this worldwide recognition. She has been making her extraordinary art for decades,” Medvedow said.

Born in Chicago, Leigh studied art and philosophy at Earlham College in Indiana. In 2018, she won the Hugo Boss Prize, considered one of the world’s top art awards, and before that, the Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize from the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

She has had solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim in New York, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Studio Museum, where she created an installation in Marcus Garvey Park. Her work has been featured in group shows in New York, Berlin and Dakar, Senegal, and has been collected by the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the ICA, among others.

As part of the biennale commission, the ICA will work with the Atlanta University Center Art History and Curatorial Studies Collective at Spelman College. The collaboration builds on the museum’s efforts to diversify the museum field, Medvedow said.

“The central idea of Simone Leigh’s work is the experiences and histories of Black women,” she said. “It seemed a tremendous opportunity to work with a museum training program that is for Black female students.”

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