“Satellite,” the 24-foot-tall sculpture that was the anchor of Leigh’s exhibit for the U.S. Pavilion, now stands outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The works from his presentation in Venice, which first traveled to Boston Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this year, are on display at the Hirshhorn until March 3, with three new bronzes: “Bisi,” “Herm” and “One Foot.”
Leigh’s turn representing the United States in Venice catapulted her to international stardom. Including this latest exhibition, no less than five museums in Washington alone have exhibited his works this year, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, GlenstoneTHE Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art, where another severe bronze takes pride of place in the atrium of the East building: “Sentinel» (2022). Ahead of her show at the Hirshhorn, Leigh talked about her studio process, her newfound fame, and a summer she spent in Washington.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Question : Since your presentation at the Venice Biennale, it seems that every museum in the country has rushed to exhibit or acquire your work. What does it do ?
A: It’s exciting. It’s also overwhelming. I’ve lived outside of that kind of glare for most of my life. I didn’t expect my work to be so visible. I’m upset about it right now, to tell you the truth.
Question : Can you describe some of the changes you have experienced?
A: It seemed important to me that my work be included in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. I don’t think this gallery has seen many changes, so it was very meaningful to me to place my work in this particular location. For me, it was a great success. On the other hand, Saisha Grayson, the curator who curated my work in the video exhibition currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, has been following my work and supporting my work for many, many years. The other thing that’s happening is a result of the very long-term relationships I’ve had with conservatives for decades. The third thing is this presentation at the Hirshhorn, which is another real success for me. I’m excited because this will be the second iteration of the exhibition and I’ve tried to make presentations specific to each installation. I am delighted that the Hirshhorn is introducing three new bronzes.
Question : Tell me about “Satellite”. What is the origin of this piece?
A: “Satellite” is the kind of subject that has interested me for a long time. I like to think about the body and how it can be a device for ancestor worship. There is a giving and receiving with the body. I always draw inspiration from different types of African art, sculpture and material culture. In this specific case, I was thinking of D’mba Mask. The wooden device used for the mask became a popular collectible sculpture in the West. It is part of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice. “Satellite” is another part of the conversation about African art in the context of the American Pavilion.
Question : The American Pavilion in Venice is a neoclassical building that resembles Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. For a piece titled “Facade,” you darkened the pavilion by covering it with a thatched roof and wooden beams. What does this building represent for you?
A: I was very aware that the building looked like Monticello and referenced that style of architecture and all the content that goes with it. Monticello was built by slaves. Imagining another type of building featuring older African forms was not much of a change. There’s not that big of a gap between the facade I created above the pavilion and the pavilion itself, if you think about how things are made and how the value is created.
Question : Your work combines bronze and stone with materials historically associated with craftsmanship and women’s work: ceramics, porcelain, terracotta, raffia. Is there still an unfair negative connotation associated with these materials?
A: This has definitely been a common thread of the work, making the work more visible. This is part of my obsession with terracotta pots. Their value is so intertwined with that of women, that’s how I started my career in art, just thinking about it. People’s attitudes towards ceramic materials in art have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. I had a piece of art rejected from an exhibition I applied for in maybe 2001. The curator told me she wouldn’t show my work because it was ceramics. When I came to New York and started working in art, a lot of artists were more interested in trash, and more interested in the idea of getting rid of things and creating more art ephemera or art that could not be collected. So I had to wait a long time for people to understand what I was doing. I felt like I was out of step with everyone.
Question : You make life-size clay versions of your monumental bronze sculptures before casting them. This is an unusual approach in sculpture. Can you talk about your process?
A: What I learned is that if you take a smaller object and use 3D modeling to blow it up, it becomes something different than what you intended. The only way to truly realize the object – so that it is seen by the viewer in the way you would like it to be understood – is to scale it. If you look at something on a table, it will appear completely different than if you look at it when it’s 24 feet tall. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to improvise and change as I build. This is a very important part of the process for me.
Question : You worked as an intern at the National Museum of African Art. How was it ?
A: I worked with the ceramics curator and xeroxed all these books and pamphlets describing ceramic construction techniques in West and Southern Africa. These are texts written for the most part by anthropologists or missionaries. I knew that many of these texts I was reading were loaded, because of the conundrum of anthropology as a colonial science. In college, I read Edward Said and “Orientalism» and start to learn a lot about post-coloniality, or what we hoped would become a discourse around post-coloniality. Today we don’t say that anymore, because it’s not like colonialism has really stopped. The museum was relatively new. There were a lot of scholars of African art who didn’t necessarily have a home in the United States to come together and talk with other people, so it was very intellectually rich and exciting. It was exciting to be in a library of African art forms. I felt like I had access to a lot of texts. It was wonderful at such a young age.
A: I think it was 1987, maybe 1988.
Question : Do you have any fond memories of your life in Washington at that time?
A: I remember going to the Ethiopian restaurant Meskerem. I remember attending a conference on West African handicrafts at Howard University. I met a Nigerian artist Camp Sokari Douglas, and she once gave me a lesson on hand building at Howard’s studio. I remember listening to the Conservatives explain how they could get people excited about Dogon statuary, how to get people into the building. It was incredible to hear these conversations.
Question : Has this level of success changed your studio practice?
A: I was able to do more work. I’ve worked with just one assistant for most of my career. Then, before the exhibitions, we would hire more people to work with us. Now I have a studio with 12 employees. This is as big as it gets. I don’t think I can grow without losing control of the work a little. It’s still something I watch all the time. I’m constantly tinkering around trying to figure out what exactly the right studio size is. I’m in a great place right now. Especially because three of these people, three out of 12, are administrative support. So I was able to hire people to do enough of the admin and emails and paperwork that I could be in the studio more than I would have been five years ago. It’s a thing. I have reached my limit. I don’t want a very big studio. I’m in a good position where I don’t feel obligated to work at all. I’m very happy with my studio practice at the moment.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.