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August 03, 2023

Acquisition: Simone Leigh

Proposed installation of Simone Leigh’s "Sentinel" in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Atrium

Proposed installation of Simone Leigh’s Sentinel (2022) in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Atrium. Visualization courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Simone Leigh (b. 1967) is the first Black woman artist to represent the United States in the Venice Biennale’s 127-year history. Her work was also included in the Biennale’s central exhibition, The Milk of Dreams, for which she was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Participant. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Sentinel (2022), the first work by the artist to enter the collection. Sentinel is a new edition of the sculpture from the US pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

Leigh describes her work as auto-ethnographic, in which she examines assumptions about the female body, race, beauty, and community. More than16-feet tall, Sentinel towers over the viewer, suggesting a lookout or guard who keeps watch over the world around it. Leigh has created her own formal vocabulary that involves abstraction of the female body, often representing it as an architecture, as seen in the scale and columnar form of Sentinel. The bronze sculpture creates a long elegant black line, from its fused legs to its attenuated neck. It also features Leigh’s signature formal devices of the faceless figure and vessel-like head. The horizontally placed bowl on top of the figure recalls histories of labor and consumption of the body, while the erasure or elimination of the face suggests the historic anonymity and obscurity of Black women and femmes as well as their withholding of self as a form of protection and self-preservation. Sentinel recalls the influence of African forms in modern art, as its abstracted figure also suggests a nkisi or African power figure believed to contain divine energy and knowledge.

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