How Simone Leigh is Dismantling Stereotypes of Black Female Sexuality

Simone Leigh’s stunning, unflinching sculptures incorporate familiar objects that invoke issues of black womanhood and sexual identity. Having studied West African and Native American ceramic traditions and employing motifs such as cowrie shells, roses, urns, plantains, and antennas, Leigh conveys fragmented elements of the black female body, dismantling negative stereotypes throughout history. Influenced by ancient African traditions of object-making, she incorporates everyday items into sculpture, fusing metal elements with porcelain and clay. 

In her Queen Bee chandelier installation, a massive cluster of metallic breasts adorned with gold nipples and sharp antenna emerging from every direction hangs from the ceiling, creating an effect that is ornamental, feminine, and menacing all at once. Other works of Leigh’s, such as her large, glazed, vagina-like onyx cowrie sculptures, more explicitly interrogate black female sexuality. In some pieces, the crevices of these shells are filled with roses, while in others the soft teeth are left bare. The cowries were made from watermelon molds, which Leigh intentionally used in order to dissemble derogatory stereotypes about blacks, instead empowering the symbol with sex-positive black feminism.

Leigh received acclaim for her video collaboration with artist Chitra Ganesh in the series “my works, my dreams, must wait till after hell,”a powerful video installation featuring a nude black woman heaving beneath a pile of stones, which is as meditative as it is provocative. More recently, Leigh has exhibited her work in several group and solo shows in 2014, including “You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been” at The Kitchen in New York, “What’s Her Face” at the Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art, and “The Shape of Things” at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. This year, Leigh also collaborated with the Stuyvesant Mansion in a new community-based project called the Free People’s Medical Clinic, organized by Creative Time, which both honored pioneering black healthcare workers and provided homeopathic and allopathic services to the community.

Sola Agustsson

Discover more artists at Gallery Wendi Norris.