Simone Leigh, the 2018 winner of the Hugo Boss Prize, now has an exhibit—Loophole of Retreat—at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
It’s a small exhibit—small as in just four pieces, one of which is hidden behind a latticework scrim. But the works are powerful and moving, and the exhibit’s size works to its advantage, giving the viewer ample time to linger at each work of art. Leigh is the 12th artist (and the first African-American artist) to win the award, which was established in 1996. It’s given every other year to either an individual or a group of contemporary artists. (Winners receive a monetary award as well as a solo show at the Guggenheim.) The title of the exhibit comes from an 1861 memoir by Harriet Jacobs called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs spent seven years hiding from her master in a tiny space in her grandmother's attic; this served as “Loophole of Retreat” from a harsh reality.
The works on view all are monumental in size, and include nods to folklore and feminism; they put the black female body at the center of the experience. Nude statues evoke influences as varied as Benin bronzes and the portraiture of Diego Velazquez. The three visible pieces include some immediately recognizable elements, such as raffia fiber, which comes from a palm tree native to tropical Africa. In this exhibit, the female form is often enmeshed with familiar domestic vessels, making for a viewing experience that is both familiar and also disquieting.
The bronze statues don’t have eyes, providing an unsettling feeling of isolation as well as defiance.
One oversized sculpture shows what appears to be a giant jug with a handle, crowned by the top half of a female figure. Another shows a clay pipe with a giant raffia skirt, evoking a huge doll or figure in a ball gown, while the third features a head atop a long piece of raffia, part of a ribbed tubular sculpture. The final piece is a sound sculpture, somewhat evocative of a baseball mitt. The sculptures speak to female identify and societal roles, evoking both traditional and unfamiliar icons and making the viewer question preconceived notions of gender and identity, as well as conventional female roles.
Pictured: Still from Spit on the Broom (2019), Directed by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. Run time: 11 min., 21 sec.
(There will also be daily film screenings, in conjunction with Loophole of Retreat. This program features the premieres of a new iteration of Leigh’s video work Untitled (M*A*S*H) (2018–19) and two shorts directed by Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich.)
Though the exhibit may be small, the impact is not—the images will linger with you long after you leave.
Loophole of Retreat runs at the Guggenheim April 19-Oct. 27. For more information, visit guggenheim.org.