Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh by Colony Little
In the small town of Natchez, Mississippi, diners at a restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard enjoy their flapjacks in an unusual way. The building is shaped like a massive brick dome that resembles a large petticoat skirt. Resting on top of the skirt sits a bust of a woman with her arms outstretched to hold a tray. While the woman looms large over the landscape, she beckons patrons to crawl under her skirt through a restaurant door resting between two windows. It is imagery that reinforces the mammy archetype that proliferated during slavery and was used by whites to thwart and subvert the social and economic progress of African-Americans during Reconstruction. Today, Mammy’s Cupboard has been painted beige and given white features to downplay the troubling legacy of an abused stereotype, yet the lingering specter of its origins and the memories of the pain produced from these images are palpable.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the Herero people have chosen an unconventional way of remembering their painful past. In a form of reverse appropriation, the Herero have adopted the clothing of the people who attempted genocide on their people over 100 years ago. In adopting their clothing, the Herero have transformed the systemic abuse inflicted by their oppressors into symbols of empowerment.
And in a small gallery space inside a museum in Los Angeles, an artist traverses time and space to examine both of these worlds through abstract sculpture.
Simone Leigh explores identity, “self-preservation”, expression and resistance in her first solo show in Los Angeles – “Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh.” Historically, the artist has used Mammy’s Cupboard and the Herero as points of departure in her work and in this exhibition she introduces us to these two strong themes to reflect on the present.
To the right of the lobby gallery entrance at the Hammer Museum, Anatomy of Architecture Series, a series of five busts stand at attention against the wall. Each eyeless figure is adorned with crowns made from hundreds of porcelain roses in varied shades gold, lapis blue and jet black; their subtle differences in expression, shape and embellishment bring them to life.
The five busts overlook a large grass hut that looms large in the gallery shrouding something or someone whose presence cannot be concealed. Much like Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Leigh’s Cupboard IV, 2016 encourages viewers inside the hut, lured by music amplified from its center. In Cupboard IV, the hut’s entrance is hidden in the back of the gallery. As a slow-playing piano guides viewers to the opening, they are greeted by a small video installation, entitled Aluminum, 2016 by curator and artist, Rashida Bumbray. The video features Bumbray performing choreography that resembles hoofing or tap dancing. Her performance pulls from two distinct histories (pre-colonial Africa and post-slavery performance) and the result is an artistic transformation of tradition that signifies adaptation. As she dances Bumbray lifts the hem of her long gold lamé dress to reveal ankle shakers fabricated from the tops of aluminum cans. The sound of the shakers resembles a jazzy brush drum style that provides a steady rhythmic syncopation that harmonizes with the piano accompaniment. It is a meditative and conversational performance that re-contextualizes the notion of dance as entertainment. During slavery dance was a form of coded communication and in Aluminum, Bumbray’s performance symbolizes the fluidity between the past and the present.
This fluidity reminded me of the many ways history repeats itself. The only difference between the past and the present is the packaging. An athlete taking a knee in San Francisco reminds us of those who dared to raise their fists in 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City. Women who courageously reveal their stories of abuse and harassment on social media resemble those women who relentlessly fought to have their voices heard. Protestors fighting to lift the veil of police brutality are merely exposing the fact that racial injustice never left us; it just evolved into new iterations. As Alice Walker once asked, “If the present looks like the past, what does the future look like?” One answer to this question may lie in what we do in the present to re-frame the past.
In Aluminum we see a transformation of artistic and cultural expression. This notion of transforming cultural aesthetics is repeated in Leigh’s exhibit, and it stayed with me for days after I saw the show. I wanted to learn more about the eyeless faces of the women in the sculptures, their colorful flowered crowns and Leigh’s use of the grass skirt in the show. These women had stories that were left untold, however their stories became clearer to me when I learned about one of the inspirations behind Leigh’s work-- the Herero.
The shape of the large grass skirt in Cupboard IV and the cow-horned crowns featured on a pair of the busts are nods to the sartorial influence of the Herero people of South West Africa. The Herero were a nomadic tribe that settled in Namibia and were later colonized by the Germans beginning in 1892. In an attempt to exploit land and rob the Herero of their most valuable assets (prime among them being cattle), Germans launched an offensive campaign fueled and justified by racist, social Darwinist rhetoric that would later serve as a prototype for the Nazi party. Between 1893 and 1903 the Germans seized Herero land and assets, sending the m to reservations and concentration camps. The systematic genocide culminated in the 3 year German Herero War of 1904 that obliterated over 80% of the Herero population. Despite being well documented, the German Herero War is relatively unknown and it took Germany a century to formally acknowledge their crimes against the Herero.
In response to the genocide, the Herero adopted a subtle, yet powerful form of recognition and protest against these atrocities. When the Herero were ultimately liberated in 1915, women adopted the Victorian styled dresses of the missionaries and German colonizers (large hoop skirts) while the men appropriated the militaristic style of their enemy. These forms of dress were utilized as symbolic reminders of the past and a warning for the future. For the women wearing large, colorful voluminous skirts and elaborately constructed head-dresses, shaped like their revered cow horns -- the style is a beautifully cathartic illustration of the Herero's transformation of trauma to power. The process is a healing one that is also repeated in African American performance. An example of this transformative tradition of adaptation, protest and healing is the “Ring Shout”, a spiritual dance that was developed during slavery that affirms old traditions from Africa that were adapted and transformed. When drums were banned, the ring shout became a coded call and response ritual and communication tool. The ring shout served many purposes: to recognize pain, protest, move through emotion and facilitate healing. Bumbray performed an emotional adaptation of the ring shout during a live demonstration of Run Mary Run at the Whitney Museum in 2012.
This process of acknowledging and moving through pain is a process we all know very well. During lamentation, we confront and process pain by ultimately transforming it into something positive, or we hide it. However, the problem with pain is that it doesn’t stay hidden; it just reveals itself in different ways, much like the pain of injustice manifesting itself in new forms. These themes of pain, injustice and adaptation are expressed in abstraction through Simone Leigh’s sculpture.
Through her work, Simone Leigh exposes viewers to an alternate view of social commentary that transforms inherited trauma and asserts an opportunity for healing.
Simone Leigh, curated by the ICA’s Jamilla James is on view at the Hammer Museum through January 8, 2017
Colony Little is a Los Angeles based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art.