From Venice Biennale to NGA in Washington: museum buys Simone Leigh's Sentinel

The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. acquires "Sentinel," a work by African American artist Simone Leigh, a Golden Lion winner at the Venice Biennale 2022, which had been exhibited at the U.S. Pavilion of the same edition of the Biennale.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has acquired one of the works Simone Leigh (Chicago, 1967) had presented at the 2022 Venice Biennale at the U.S. Pavilion, where Leigh was the first black female artist to represent her country in the 127 years of the exhibition. The work is Sentinel (2022), is a new edition of the sculpture from the U.S. Pavilion at last year’s Biennale (Leigh’s work was also featured in the international exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, where the Chicago artist won the Golden Lion for best participant). The acquisition was made possible by a donation from the Glenstone Foundation, and the sculpture will be installed in the lobby of the East Building in September 2023.

Approximately five meters tall, Sentinel towers over the viewer, suggesting a lookout or guard watching over the world around it. Leigh has created her own formal vocabulary involving the abstraction of the female body, often representing it as architecture, as seen in Sentinel’s scale and columnar form. The bronze sculpture creates a long, elegant black line from her cast legs to her attenuated neck. It also features Leigh’s characteristic formal devices of the faceless figure and the vase-like head. The bowl placed horizontally above the figure recalls histories of labor and consumption of the body, while the erasure or elimination of the face suggests the historical anonymity and blackness of black women and women, as well as their rejection of self as a form of protection and self-preservation. Sentinel recalls the influence of African forms in modern art, as its abstract figure also suggests an nkisi, an African power figure believed to contain divine energy and knowledge.

Leigh has created a multifaceted body of work that includes sculpture, video and installation. She describes her work as autoethnographic, in which she examines assumptions about the female body, race, beauty and community. She incorporates materials, forms, and sculptural traditions from the West and South Africa to explore black woman-identified subjectivity. Leigh’s work also relates to early African American forms. Her glazed ceramic and bronze sculptures often employ forms traditionally associated with African art, while her performance-influenced installations create spaces where historical precedent is mixed with self-determination.

“We are thrilled to bring this exceptional work by one of America’s greatest living artists into the collection of the National Gallery of Art,” says Director Kaywin Feldman. “Sentinel soars in the East Building’s spacious atrium, a commanding contemporary presence among other monumental works of sculpture by Alexander Calder, Anthony Caro, Isamu Noguchi, and Richard Serra.”

Image: Sentinel in a rendering that places the work in the space that will house it at the National Gallery in Washington.

From Venice Biennale to NGA in Washington: museum buys Simone Leigh's Sentinel
From Venice Biennale to NGA in Washington: museum buys Simone Leigh's Sentinel

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