New YorkSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum
April 19 – October 26, 2019
A bronze figure of a woman, ebony-colored and polished to a soft sheen, stands in the center of the gallery. Her tiny waist extends from a large bell-shaped vessel from which a handle, like the kind found on a cup or pitcher, emerges in the place where a pocket might be sewn into the seam of a skirt. She is crowned with an afro of hair, with nose and mouth neatly sculpted, but her eyes remain unrendered. Jug (2019) is among a series of new works by Simone Leigh that make up The Hugo Boss Prize 2018: Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat at the Guggenheim Museum.
Now emblematic of Leigh’s work (a photograph of Jug has been used in the museum’s extensive advertising of the show), the figure possesses a feminine delicacy that leaves her frankly vulnerable: it is easy to imagine multiple scenarios in which this bare-breasted young Black woman would be overpowered. And yet she is protected by her greatest weakness, her blindness, which allows her to close her eyes to a world in which she is in a constant state of peril, blocking out the legacy of slavery and generations of discrimination which have reigned down violence against Black women and their families; her inward gaze thus becomes an act of transcendence and self-determination. Playing on the racially charged Aunt Jemima brand syrup bottle, Leigh aligns herself with the work of artists such as Betye Saar, whose Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Cocktail (1973) turned the jug into a bomb; for Leigh, however, the war of oppression is not fought by attack, but through retreat.
The tension between forced confinement and self-designed sanctuary lies at the heart of Leigh’s art-making, which spans sculpture, installation, video, and social practice: the show takes its name from the 1861 memoir of slave-turned-abolitionist and writer Harriet Jacobs, whose master threatened to sell her children if she refused his sexual advances. Jacobs described as a “loophole of retreat” a crawlspace under the rafters of her grandmother’s house, where she hid from her master for seven years, sewing, reading the Bible, and catching glimpses of her children who lived below.1
At the back of the gallery, two walls built from breeze blocks form the small cell into which viewers can walk in Loophole of Retreat (2019), the exhibition’s titular installation work. An audio montage of laughter, clapping hands, and bits of song, co-designed with sound artist Moor Mother, loops through an old PA speaker. Within the installation’s walls, The Village Series, #14 (2019), a small ceramic work, stands on a circular pedestal. Glazed in an earthy brown, thick braids of clay—suggestive of cornrowed hair, sutured skin, or the marks left by a whip—run down its conical sides. Loophole of Retreat was inspired by the story of Debbie Africa, a member of MOVE, a Black revolutionary group founded by her husband John Africa, who advocated against technology in favor of a back-to-nature lifestyle. Debbie Africa was imprisoned following the death of a Philadelphia police officer during a shootout in the MOVE community in 1978.2 She gave birth to her son in prison, an event that remained hidden from guards as fellow MOVE members created an aural sanctuary by singing and chanting for days to muffle the baby’s cries.
Curators Katherine Brinson and Susan Thompson, along with assistant curator Amara Antilla, organized the exhibition after Leigh received the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, presented biennially by the museum for outstanding achievement in contemporary art. Leigh is the first Black woman to receive the award, and only the second to be shortlisted for it, behind Lorna Simpson. In addition to Leigh’s work, a takeaway broadsheet of Notes on a Riot—a poetic essay by cultural historian Saidiya Hartman designed by artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti into which Jacob’s story is folded—is available to viewers. An accompanying film program plays daily at the Guggenheim, and features Leigh’s experimental film, Untitled (M*A*S*H) (2018–19). Onscreen, her camera floats in and out of an enclave of tents marked with big red crosses in which a community of Black women alternative-health-practitioners tend to a weary group of women of color. While the setting may appear to be a military-themed spa, Leigh is among many Black feminists who equate self-care with activism, drawing from Audre Lorde’s 1988 essay, A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer, in which she writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”3 Leigh’s slowly paced images scored by characters singing spirituals do not offer a respite from racial injustice, but stand as opposition to them.
Standing behind the breezeblock of Loophole of Retreat on a morning in June, when the Guggenheim was still mostly empty, I felt separated from the spaciousness of the gallery, the sense of incarceration Leigh’s walls create, and yet I felt protected, cradled in the small space by the singing. As a woman’s voice crooned, “I love you,” I smiled to hear a museum guard echo back, “I love you, too.”
- Andrews, William L., “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813–1897” Documenting the American South, June 17, 2018.
- D'Onofrio, Michael, “After 40 Years in Prison, Debbie Africa Remains Committed to MOVE’s Mission,” The Philadelphia Tribune, October 2, 2018.
- Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (Mineola, NY: Ixia Press, 2017). First issued by Firebrand Books, Ithaca, NY, 1988.