BEFORE MY ENCOUNTER with Simone Leigh’s work, I had never heard of the United Order of Tents. Founded in 1867 by former slaves Annetta Lane and Harriet Taylor, the Tents is a secret society of black women whose focus was nursing, and they are the oldest continually existing sorority of black women in the United States. Today, the organization continues to pursue its mission of nursing and healing members of the black community by providing a variety of additional services, from aid in securing mortgages to assistance for building housing for the elderly to ensuring proper burial services for the dead. We know that members of the Tents are called Sisters and that those who have performed exemplary service are referred to as Queens, but beyond that, very little is known about the society’s inner workings. Leigh has cited the Tents as an inspiration for her own work, and it’s easy to see the parallel, not only because Leigh, too, has focused on practices of care, but also because much of Leigh’s art is, if not exactly secret, not exactly public, either.
This was very much the case with Leigh’s installation/social-practice project The Waiting Room, 2016, presented at the New Museum in New York. The title of the work alludes to the real-life, not-at-all-fake-news account of Esmin Elizabeth Green, a black woman who, in 2008, sat in the emergency-room waiting area at Kings County Hospital Center for twenty-four hours and died on the floor, of a blood clot that had worked its way up from her legs to her lungs. She was never seen by a doctor. Green’s case is unusually appalling, but structurally it is decidedly not an isolated event, given the invisibility of black pain in our medical system. The statistics on black women’s health issues are harrowing in their starkness. According to the CDC, black women die in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white women. Black women are 35 percent more likely to develop heart disease than white or Hispanic women and are almost twice as likely as white women to be diagnosed with diabetes. The litany of disparities could continue for pages. Suffice it to say, Leigh’s interest in the historical denial of black women’s bodiestheir experience, their suffering, their pleasure, their knowledgegalvanized her to create
The Waiting Room. It was not a particularly visual event. Mostly what I recall is a gallery whose focal point was a large cabinet lined with glass jars luxuriously filled with herbs and dried flowers. This relatively empty room suggested that the real work lay elsewhere, namely, in the workshops on such topics as complementary medicine, folk-healing traditions, acupuncture, and meditation. Many of these events occurred while the museum was closed to the public, notably Home Economics, a program, designed specifically for fifteen black schoolgirls, that investigated ways to address the holistic needs of black women in relation to wellness and the medical establishment. However, you will not find a plethora of photos of happy museum visitors attending the workshops and events she organized. The scarcity of documentation is a choice, and a pointed one. Leigh’s programming was neither an offering to the archive nor a feel-good tonic for the general public; her concerns were exclusively directed toward her work’s primary audience, black women.
The Waiting Room built on, and in some respects continued, Leigh’s 2014 Creative Time project Free People’s Medical Clinic, curated by Rashida Bumbray. Located in the historical Weeksville neighborhood of Brooklyn, a settlement founded by free blacks in 1838, the Free People’s Medical Clinic offered HIV and blood-pressure screenings, modern dance, lessons in Caribbean herbalism, and more. In each of her forays into wellness, Leigh subtly demands that the field of medicine, as currently constructed by the white, colonialist West, broaden to address the specific concerns and health issues of black women (an expansion mandated by the exclusion of black women from being the subjects of medicine as it has been traditionally conceived). Both The Waiting Room and Free People’s Medical Clinic identified wellness as encompassing practices habitually not considered under the rubric of medicine, such as the knowledges that emanate from sources as disparate as folk songs and the philosophical work of black feminist theorists like Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman (to name only two). Free People’s Medical Clinic was also a direct nod to the legacy of the Black Panther Party’s neighborhood activism and to Dr. Josephine English, one of the first African American ob-gyns in New York, whose home served as the project’s base. This complex layering of historical allusions and contemporary events is a hallmark of Leigh’s work. The Waiting Room was on view at the New Museum during the fateful summer week when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered by police. Leigh’s response, inspired by the ethos and tactics of the Tents (recall that they were established both to heal and to bury the dead respectfully), was to mobilize and quickly convene a group of black women artists, who would ultimately become Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter. Upward of one hundred members met privately for weeks, without the museum’s staff, to plan a day of activities to take place at the New Museum on September 1, 2016. This time and space were to be primarily for the people that occupy the center of Leigh’s practiceblack women. What was on the table was a takeover, a claiming of the space of the museum, with no sense of apprehension or apology, for a group of people it has historically barely registeredwhether as subjects, artists, visitors, or employees. To be honest, there was a time I would have felt Leigh’s call for exclusively black women to organize this event “problematic” (I suppose I would have argued that it was “essentialist,” while sidestepping my feelings of being left out), but I no longer do. This is partly because of Leigh’s forthright insistence that black female subjectivity is the historical framework of her practice, that black women are its subject matter, and that black women are the work’s privileged audience. Given the lack of any such systematic inclusion of black women in the fields of Western culture prior to this moment, this recalibration seems both deeply necessary and positively exhilarating. Indeed, the assertion of this entitlement seems like an extension of Rosa Parks’s fundamental act of resistance: space claiming. Considering it as such, I began to recalibrate my own “feelings” about pointedly being left out of an organizing meeting. Why? Because I understand Leigh’s need for exclusion as bound to the Tents’ use of secrecyit’s part of the strategy that enables her to do the work of placing black women at the center of her practice. Surely the Tents would not have survived had white women been invited to attend, and surely the Tents have produced a body of knowledge that owes its very longevity to its exclusive privileging of black female subjectivity. To be situated outside of the main event, to be refused entry, to be placed in a position of radical unknowingthese are deeply interesting aspects of Leigh’s work for me as a white woman. And perhaps more to the point, this is the position from which I must engage with the work, and it is demonstrably different from the place I typically occupy, marked as it is by my status as insider, learned, knowledgeable, comfortable. For centuries, all of culture’s agentsits makers, benefactors, and audienceshave been presumed to be white men, and for centuries, Leigh’s primary audience, black women, were denied a place in this hegemonic structure. This was not a victimless crime. There are ramifications. And one of them, Leigh suggests, is a profound need for intimacy and privacy, for secrecy, for going underground. In an era of selfies and social media, the same era that witnessed 53 percent of white women voting for Donald Trump, looking back at the logic of privacy that protected the Tents offers very particular possibilities. Similarly, in an era when Harriet Tubman is denied her place on our most public currency, the power of underground networks might be conducive to the difficult and iterative work of decolonizing one’s mind.
And yet, some of Leigh’s work is decidedly above-ground, marking space and taking up room, fully participating in the symbolic cultural value of Art. Her discrete sculptural art objects operate in tandem with her social-practice work, a call-and-response that engages a dynamic of hiding in plain sight, of being in public while managing privacy. These objects fall loosely, but not exclusively, into three categories: ceramic-rosette-festooned heads of black women; large ceramic forms in the shape of cowrie shells; and large-scale architectural domes. The portrait busts are as anonymous as they are sensuous. The ceramic rosettes that form their hair are as nonnaturalistic as the palette of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty lipsticks: a dry cobalt blue, a shiny and seductive oyster pink, etc. This stylized hair is gloriously coiffed, and one imagines every rosette’s meticulous and repetitive placement on each figure’s head. These silent figures are similar without being generic, and the proliferation of style within a constrained set of forms is offered with all the complexity of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. The figures don’t have eyes per se; instead the forms register the eyes as a depression, each eye about the size of the thumb that made it. The texture of these gentle depressions, the smoothness caused by a thumb rubbing their surfaces over and over again, makes them a ravishing combination of the iconic and the indexical. Their lack of eyes might seem to invite viewers to regard them in a classically colonializing manner: You can look and they cannot look back. But this is not the sensation I have when looking at them. I feel as if it is I who cannot “see” them. They do not, importantly, “refuse” my gaze (because that dynamic would still place me at the center of the event). Rather, their lack of eyes counterintuitively means they are “unseeable,” and hence unknowable, to me. They remain self-possessed, looking inward, contemplating and thinking things that I cannot fathom. Here, too, I’m reminded of the logic of the secret as an age-old strategy for contesting being named and controlled by a hostile other. I suppose it should go without saying that this claiming of the right to privacy feels deeply germane to our current moment.
Interiority is also at play in Leigh’s ceramic sculptures of oversize cowrie shells, each the scale and shape of the watermelons Leigh uses as a mold to generate them. Salt-fired to produce an array of extraordinarily haptic glazes that are a perfect marriage of color and texture, they evoke scarification, ritual, and exchange. Their shape is open to extreme slippageeyes, vaginas, bellies, shells, sculpture, objets d’art. They lay claim to craft, technical sophistication, and tradition. The gestalt of these pieces is fast and rich, and I sense the feel, the weight, the process all at once. The cowrie sculptures are deeply truthful to their source. Like shells found on a beach, they feel like a gift from the world. And, as with real shells, their interiors are unavailable to vision, and your pinky will get stuck for sure as you run your fingers surreptitiously along their toothed edges.
Commensurate with the repetition found in her ceramics and her social-practice work, Leigh’s oeuvre is punctuated by an architectural form that is an ineffable mixture of the infamous “decorated shed” (to cite Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s favorite type of vernacular architecture); the 1940s-era restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi; and the dwellings of the Musgum people of Cameroon. These bell-shaped volumes, which are echoed in the rounded torsos of Leigh’s portrait heads, are frequently life-size and adorned with concentric layers of raffia suggestive of women’s clothingwhether Victorian crinoline hoop skirts, the flapper garb of Josephine Baker, or a nurse or cook’s apron. Leigh’s room-scale, dome-shaped sculptures produce a twinned sensation of limit and possibility. In her 2016 exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, a monitor inside the dome was showing Aluminum, 2016, in which Bumbray (who is a dancer and choreographer as well as a curator) appears in a floor-length gown, wearing anklets adorned with the tops of cansjewelry Leigh purchased at the muthi (traditional medicine) market in Durban, South Africa. Bumbray dances gloriously, furiously, religiously. She dances as if her life depends on it. She dances her energy into the space of a future we can’t see, disturbing and animating particles from atoms to muons. On entering these sensuously surfaced huts, I always feel like I missed whatever it was that happened there. The video is a residue of what occurred before I arrived. The video is a promise of something that will transpire after I’ve left. For me, these mild acts of aesthetic refusal start to engage the limits of empathy: I can’t have it all. I can’t know it all. Not everything is available to everyone, not even to a privileged gatekeeper of culture such as myself. Such are the ongoing fantasies of the colonialist mindset. The museum, the Western institution I have dedicated my life to, with its familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education, is one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise. Its fantasies of possession and edification grow more and more wearisome as the years go by. Leigh’s work intimates the increasingly discomforting possibility that an overconfidence in the power of critique might itself be a vestige of privilege. I confess that more days than not I find myself wondering whether the whole damn project of collecting, displaying, and interpreting culture might just be unredeemable.
Leigh’s work makes it plain that I can’t enter into its field of knowledge, when it suggests that my very capacity for sight and empathy and knowledge is bounded and limited. Such acts of aesthetic refusal are not new. Hilma af Klint mandated in her will that her abstract work not be exhibited publicly until at least twenty years after her death. Marcel Duchamp worked on Étant Donnés in secret for twenty years (1946–66), letting no one but his wife Teeny open the secret door in his studio. It was during these two decades that he opined that the artist of the future would do well to go underground. But going underground doesn’t mean decamping. Even as Leigh refuses certain aspects of visibility and publicity, and insists on the right to private assembly, her work also lays claim to space. Her work’s occupation of spaces both literal (taking over the museum) and metaphorical (the synthesis of body and architecture) is not a possessive “claiming” of space. Rather, her workin both its sculptural and social-practice formationsis bound up with new ways of thinking about things, new ways of claiming or holding space.
For the past few years I’ve heard people use the phrase “holding space,” and I confess I’ve chalked it up to a general decline in grammatically correct English. That changed when I heard Patrisse Cullors talk about “holding space” in the context of a Black Lives Matter event. When Cullors used the phrase, it seemed clear she was pointedly avoiding the semantic trap of asserting power through spatial dominance. She was offering something much gentler, and something much more powerful in its gentleness. Holding is an act that implies weight and assistance, an act of touching and proximity, a gesture of binding rather than division. Holding is also temporary. No one holds forever. Holding is tiring. Holding is provisional. One of the most famous acts of resistance in the history of the civil rights movement, Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated bus, was an act of holding in this sense. Generations of schoolchildren, myself included, were taught that the reason Parks wouldn’t give up her seat was that she was tired. And that is doubtless true. But, of course, her not getting up was also a form of displacement. When Parks wouldn’t give up her seat she was refusing to make room for whiteness. She was holding the space for black subjectivity. Her action reimagined space; she was reshaping rather than territorializing. Leigh’s work helps me to see that the logic of the secret has that force. Part of the predicament of whiteness is its constant demand that everyone “else” legitimate themselves in the face of it. One of the (many) implicit effects of Leigh’s oeuvre is to intimate that there may be much to learn from listening to silence, for in that quietude is the profound realization that the dream of equality mandates a set of massive adjustments to some of our mostly deeply held beliefs. I’ve come to see her mute ceramic female figures as sentinels holding space for a culture that is very much in the making, a culture in which whiteness is neither the center nor the frame. Her figures are not giving up their secrets. They are not there for the taking. They cannot be occupied, colonized, co-opted, or subjugated. Their existence indicates a set of possibilities and limitationsof empathy, of knowledge, of rationality. The rosettes that adorn their heads speak to the repetition of handwork, to the eons of women who have sat at tables rolling and pinching clay, bread, vegetables, hair; they situate themselves in the longue durée of craft; they evince the meditative state that may have accompanied their making. (Was their laughter at that table? Were there tears? Undoubtedly there were deep exhalations of breath. When will we see these activities and gatherings as a form of medicine?) The ceramic heads, the architectural sculptures, and the social-practice work all partake of the ongoing transmission of knowledgeoral and auralbetween generations of black women. There may come a time when the strategy of the secret is no longer needed, but clearly that future has not yet landed on our shores. Now, it seems, there is a need for black women to ensure that the knowledges they carried over the ocean, protected in the hulls of ships, guarded in fields, and nurtured in city apartments remain secret. For to be secret, to be underground, is one strategy against the constant colonialist imperative to name, and the longer one can stave off the naming, the better a shot one has at not being subject to the subjection, the co-optation, and the control that are the hallmarks of the colonialist mind-set. Leigh’s workshops for black women and her sculptural sentinels leave me to do my own homework (to learn, for instance, as much about the United Order of Tents as I know about Jonas Salk, to understand that Musgum architectural feats are as world-transforming as flying buttresses, to see the knowledge produced by black feminism as a form of medicine as well as a form of philosophy). And while I learn these things as a counterbalance to the colonialist Western history I carry in the very structure of my thought, I know that deep down I also find myself wistful, wishful, hoping that one day the silent sentinels will speak, and that I might be ready to listen.
Helen Molesworth is chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.