Los Angeles

Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Colony Little reviews Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh in Los Angeles.

Simone Leigh. "Althea", 2016; Terra-cotta, India ink, porcelain, cobalt and epoxy. Courtesy of the Artist and the Hammer Museum. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Simone Leigh. Althea, 2016; terra-cotta, india ink, porcelain, cobalt, epoxy. Courtesy of the Artist and Hammer Museum. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Simone Leigh uses sculpture to tell stories that transcend time and space. In her first solo West Coast exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Leigh draws on Africa’s colonial past while remaining rooted in the present, incorporating political resistance and performance to craft a decidedly modern aesthetic.

The exhibition features five onyx-colored sculptural busts adorned with raffia skirts, beads and headdresses made from small porcelain roses in shades of indigo, gray, white, and gilded 14-karat gold. Distinct facial expressions and gestures distinguish each bust from the others. None of the sculptures, however, have eyes. If eyes are the windows to the soul, their absence creates a façade; their obfuscation may be a protective emotional shield. One sculpture stands apart from the rest. A black hole in the center of the bust surrounded by black flowers in india ink replaces the details of her face. With her identity unknown, the piece becomes a mirror for the viewer to project their own narrative onto the work. When looking at her, I couldn’t help but think of Nina Simone’s powerfully emotive song “Four Women.” The song invites us into the lives of her subjects, engaging us in simple, vivid stories of pain, history, and perception. Viewing Simone Leigh’s work through this lyrical storytelling lens, I saw these sculptures as an abstract adaptation of the song. The artist extends the narrative by including the faceless woman whose story is unknown.

In Leigh’s exhibition, music strategically fills the void left from the absence of the spoken word. A work that sits across from the five busts in the gallery deploys music in this way. In a large-scale piece called Cupboard V, Leigh incorporates dance, improvisation, and music into her sculptural practice. A large, raffia-covered hut kisses the gallery’s ceiling, taking up three-quarters of the space in the small room. Its entrance is obscured from the front of the gallery. Music plays within the hut, beckoning the viewer toward the entrance at the back of the gallery. Inside, the video installation Aluminum plays. This piece features performance artist Rashida Bumbray dancing in a studio, her ankle shakers rhythmically accentuating her moves in harmony with the piano accompaniment.

A key to this exhibition lies in the many possible ways viewers can interpret how the two sets of works connect. The combined works in the exhibit represent a multigenerational and trans-Atlantic exploration into the origins of African and African American storytelling traditions that resonate throughout the diaspora.

Simone Leigh is curated by the ICA’s Jamilla James and is on view at the Hammer through January 8, 2017.

Colony Little is a Los Angeles–based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art. As a Bay Area native and long-term Southern California resident, Colony covers emerging contemporary art in California, the aesthetic of urban culture, and is a champion of African American art and media.