Over the course of her career, Simone Leigh (b. 1967, Chicago) has continuously and insistently centered the black female experience. In Loophole of Retreat, an exhibition presented on the occasion of Leigh winning the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, she layers form, sound, and text to fashion narratives of resilience and resistance. The project’s title is drawn from the writings of Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved abolitionist who in 1861 published an account of her struggle to achieve freedom, including the seven years she spent hiding from her master in a tiny crawl space beneath the rafters of her grandmother’s home. This act of defiant fortitude, which forged a “loophole of retreat” from an unjust reality, serves as a touchstone for Leigh’s long-standing commitment to honoring the agency of black women and their power to inhabit worlds of their own creation.
In a suite of new sculptures, Leigh merges the human body with domestic vessels or architectural elements that evoke unacknowledged acts of female labor and care. These works summon the ancient archetype of the nude statue and inflect it with folk traditions from across the African diaspora as well as with historical references ranging from the Benin bronzes to the portraiture of seventeenth-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. As such, they emerge from what the artist refers to as a process of “formal creolization,” channeling the cultural fluidity that is a legacy of colonialism. The faces of Leigh’s bronze sculptures are depicted without eyes, while another work features an abstracted torso assembled from a clay pipe. This refusal of a reciprocal gaze endows each figure with a resolute autonomy.
Leigh’s prevailing theme of self-determination is expanded upon in a sound installation at the back of the gallery and in an accompanying film program featuring works by the artist and by director Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. The narrative of Harriet Jacobs is one of many evoked by cultural historian Saidiya Hartman in a new text that grew out of a dialogue with Leigh. Available as a takeaway broadsheet designed by artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Hartman’s “Notes for the Riot” renders a rich poetics of black feminist revolt and transcendence, one that reverberates throughout the exhibition.