Critical Fabulation: Simone Leigh in conversation with Susan Thompson

Still from Allen Willis' ‘Can You Hear Me?,’ 1975 © East Bay Media Center
15 Oct 2020

Whether forged in ceramic, cast in bronze, recorded in video, or enacted in social practice, Simone Leigh’s incisive work is consistently motivated by the concerns and demands of Black women, her primary audience.

This focus is both practical and philosophical as she endeavors to create greater visibility for Black women as both participants and respondents in the history of art. In recognition of her impact in the field of contemporary art, Leigh was awarded the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize. I had both the honor of serving as a juror for the prize and the pleasure of working closely with Leigh as co-curator of her subsequent 2019 solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, Simone Leigh: Loophole of Retreat, a process through which we began a dialogue that continues to this day. We spoke by phone on May 18th of this year and our conversation captured a unique moment in time: New York was two months into the statewide shutdown order that required all non-essential workers to remain largely quarantined at home in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Only a week later, the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer inspired an unparalleled wave of national protests condemning police brutality and anti-Black racism, and prompted ongoing rallies affirming the value of Black lives, a concern that has always been central in Leigh’s work. What follows are edited and condensed portions of our conversation.
—Susan Thompson

Installation view, ‘The Hugo Boss Prize 2018. Simone Leigh, Loophole of Retreat’ Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2019. Photo: © David Heald

Susan Thompson: It feels like the only place we can really start today’s conversation is by acknowledging the strange circumstance we find ourselves in: in the midst of a terrifying global pandemic. The last time we saw each other was in early March, catching up over cheeseburgers in Brooklyn. That was one of the last social things I did before beginning quarantine. The very notion that we could comfortably be out in public at a restaurant without fear or concern feels impossible these days. So I want to begin by asking, two months into all of this, how are you doing?
Simone Leigh: I’m doing okay. One of the things I think this experience has shown me is what it’s like to have anxiety and really to be fearful and worried about what can happen. Even though I have lived most of my life in precarity, and I experience the effects of weathering, and I have even created social practice works around this topic, I don’t suffer from constant anxiety like some of my friends. This pandemic has made me aware of a whole other side of what it can feel like to be alive. This constant, 24/7 concern that something might happen, and I don’t know if I can protect myself from it, and just being afraid. It’s not something I’ve experienced before, or at least for a long, long time. After living in New York for a while, especially raising a girl, you start to feel that you can handle anything. Not anymore.
ST: One of the horrible things about anxiety is the way it often manifests through a tightness in the chest and a shortness of breath—the main symptoms of COVID—which then perpetuates the anxiety you’re already feeling.
SL: I’ve been describing it as that close high-pressure feeling like a hurricane is coming in. It’s always there. I always feel like there’s a storm right around the corner. And it really has been pushed by this horrible president. It’s so beyond with him at this point.
On the other hand, I’ve been watching movies with [my daughter] Zenobia. We’ve been having movie nights. I’ve been trying to catch her up with movies that I think are really important that everyone should see. The post-digital children, with their laptops, have missed out on a lot of cinema. We watched Cassavetes’s ‘Gloria.’ We’re going to watch ‘Babette’s Feast’ today. Then we’re going to watch ‘Black Orpheus.’ That’s been fun. I’ve had a lot of time to think. I’ve had a lot of time to rest. I’ve had time to have really long, uninterrupted conversations with friends. It’s not a wellness retreat, but I do acknowledge that, in this privileged position that I’m in, it has been an opportunity for me to do some things that I haven’t been able to get to in a long time. I started playing the piano again.
So that part of it has been really nice. But there’s always looming death, especially when I realized that Covid was going to disproportionately affect Black people. Now, videos of Black people being hunted down and killed for no apparent reason have begun to appear, again. In 1892, journalist Ida B. Wells [1862-1931] initiated her crusade against lynchings, which culminated in the publication of her book ‘The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States’ (1895). We are still there/here.

‘People sometimes think that the work of Black artists and thinkers is somehow opaque, but it’s because they aren’t aware of its history.’—Simone Leigh

ST: It is devastating to see the impact of the virus on Black communities, and doubly so to have seen the ratcheting down of the pandemic response after it became evident that there was a disproportionate impact on Black communities. It compounds the utter, boundless cruelty that has come to define this presidency.
You mentioned that this has been an unexpectedly welcome time of rest and respite. This time a year ago was filled with so much great energy, but it was also really hectic and exhausting. The opening of our show at the Guggenheim, the ‘Loophole of Retreat’ conference at the museum, the launch of your public sculpture ‘Brick House’ on the High Line, and the opening of the Whitney Biennial all happened within a one-month window. It’s kind of incredible that you didn’t combust! The slowness of this time is a stark contrast to that moment and may be a bit of an antidote to it in some ways.
SL: I do feel lucky to have this time with the world shut down. I would have been on a plane five or six times by now. I’m feeling really grateful, but also at a crossroads, trying to figure out how I’m going to orient my life and politics from this new, more stable base. The biggest thing is that I realize that the privilege I have now means that I am going to live and other people are going to die. I’ve never had to face that so directly as I do now. So that’s been something that I’m trying to come to terms with.
ST: It’s a profound thing to confront.
SL: It almost feels like an identity crisis.
ST: Though it’s not as if you haven’t been engaging with those kinds of modes of thinking previously. The work that you did through the ‘Free People’s Medical Clinic’ and ‘The Waiting Room’ [social practice projects produced in 2014 and 2016] really addressed issues that are so relevant to today’s moment. Those projects specifically highlighted the forms of expertise in health and wellness practices that have been carried by Black women throughout the centuries as they transferred their knowledge from one generation to the next through organizations like the United Order of Tents, a secret society of Black nurses that dates back to the time of the Underground Railroad. And at this moment, we as a society are relying so much upon essential healthcare and elder care workers, many of whom are Black and Latina women, and we’re also seeing how much we rely upon these women for their important roles in childcare.
SL: I think a lot about the ‘Free People’s Medical Clinic’ and the way I tried to uncover not only the forms of knowledge but knowledge production amongst Black women and how we’ve used certain modalities of care to not only take care of ourselves but also to be able to pass down these sorts of self-determining strategies. It does seem prescient now, that project.
I stopped doing social practice works because they became too much out of my control, and the format I’ve settled on most recently is the conference. [The ‘Loophole of Retreat’ conference held at the Guggenheim as part of Leigh’s 2019 solo exhibition at the museum, brought together a large group of Black women intellectuals, theorists, and historians to share expertise.] I was interested in creating a platform for academics and practitioners to perform their ideas as an artist would. I was trying to make more visible the array of Black feminist thought happening now. People sometimes think that the work of Black artists and thinkers is somehow opaque, but it’s because they aren’t aware of its history. June Jordan, in a poem read to the United Nations in 1978 commemorating the activism of South African women, declared ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for.’ That’s not an idea from the Obamas.

Simone Leigh, ‘Free People’s Medical Clinic, Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn,’ 2014. Photo: © Shulamit Seidler-Feller. Courtesy Creative Time

ST: We’ve talked previously about this notion of opacity as a strategy: that sometimes secrecy and working underground can be necessary for survival. Like with the United Order of Tents; if the work isn’t visible, it can’t be targeted and suppressed. But then of course, the flipside, what you’re speaking about, is that the systemic racism that suppresses the contributions of Black women results in a lack of recognition and an absence from history. Projects like the conference, that shine a bright light on and give a platform to this incredible work, are an important corrective.
SL: That conference at the Guggenheim last year is probably the most exciting thing I’ve done in my work right now that I can think of. I make sculpture, but I think I’m equally proud of that conference. Since COVID happened almost on the one-year anniversary of that event, I’m really thinking about how wonderful it was to gather those people together.

Loophole of Retreat: A Conference, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April, 2019. Photo: © Ed Marshall. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

ST: There was such a great energy in the room that day. In the absence of in-person gatherings, so much of that kind of connection is now moving online. You’re pretty active on Instagram, and it seems to be an outlet that is almost a part of your research process. Your posts often highlight expressions of Black joy and celebrate Black excellence in contributions to culture, featuring microhistories that may be unknown. You mentioned earlier in our conversation just how devastating it is to see the most recent images of Black men being hunted down, and you’re of course referring in part to Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered by three white men in Georgia while he was out for a run. Something you posted on Friday has been stuck in my head all weekend. It was a snippet from filmmaker Allen Willis’s 1975 video ‘Can you Hear Me?’
SL: Oh, yeah.
ST: It was incredible. The full piece is a 30-minute work that shows Black youth from East Oakland reciting their own poetry. Some of them appear looking straight into the camera performing their poems and some are voiceovers patched together with footage. The excerpt that you posted included a poem that starts with the exhortation, ‘Run, brother, run.’ It continues rhythmically, ‘He’s coming, he’s coming, behind you, watch out,’ and is accompanied by footage of a Black man running through the streets of the East Bay in slow motion. It was just gutting.
SL: Devastating. It’s so contemporary, it could have been made last week. I think that the world has some knowledge of Black American contributions to music and a lot of popular culture forms. But I don’t think that people are as aware of the long history of Black avant-garde filmmaking. As well as other forms of knowledge. It has been fun with Instagram to post things that I’m referring to in my work that are not common knowledge. It’s been a great sketchbook for me, but I’m also aware that it helps people become more aware of this really vast, complex history that we have and ensures that it doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s interesting to see Ida B. Wells getting a posthumous Pulitzer at the same time that the story of Ahmaud Arbery circulated. The man stopped to get some water at a construction site and then a half an hour later was gunned down like an animal, which is really very similar to the story arc of a lynching. And this happens at the same time that Wells gets a Pulitzer 100 years later for her work bringing attention to lynchings.
ST: And at the same time that Wells gets her posthumous award, Nikole Hannah-Jones is awarded a Pulitzer for her 1619 Project at ‘The Times,’ which is about rewriting the history of America as one that is completely defined by its relationship to chattel slavery.
SL: I think that her project was the seed that blossomed into this Pulitzer for Wells. I read that there’s a connection. But it’s like with me getting the Hugo Boss Prize. I was the first Black person to win the Hugo Boss Prize. And I think I have a great body of work, but also it’s just something that 30 years ago wouldn’t have been possible. It wouldn’t have been possible for Howardena Pindell.It wouldn’t have been possible for Betye Saar for so many reasons. It’s kind of like with Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ida B. Wells. What Nikole can achieve now is because of Ida B. Wells. You realize you’re standing on people’s shoulders.
ST: I know you take very seriously your role as being a link in that chain. It’s important to you to share your platform so that others can stand on your shoulders as well.
SL: Yeah. That is a very conscious strategy that I try to always hold myself to, which is: When I can open a gate, to open it. It has never harmed me. It’s always been good for me to support other artists. It really has worked.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about Dave the Potter, aka Dave the Slave, aka David Drake, [1801-1865] because there’s an upcoming show featuring his work and the work of other slaves in Edgefield Pottery down South. He would sign his pots and write poems on his pots. He and others also produced a lot of face jugs out of that pottery, which was not really legal, so they had to secret the face jugs through the kilns. And now Dave the Potter will be in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ida B. Wells gets a Pulitzer. I still have this hope that if you live an ethical and honest life, you can win in the end—maybe not in your lifetime, but eventually. That’s why I really appreciate the work that the Columbia scholar Saidiya Hartman does with archives, to help us understand what the last several hundred years have been like.

David Drake, storage jar, 1858, alkaline-glazed stoneware. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

David Drake, storage jar (detail),1858, alkaline-glazed stoneware. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

ST: Yes, Saidiya’s concept of ‘critical fabulation’ as a way of engaging history has been so important. She created this notion that has provided a really interesting—and I think clarifying—framework for approaching your work. Critical fabulation draws upon the idea that there is an archival history that exists, but because there’s so much that’s left out of that archive for all the kinds of reasons that we’ve talked about—systemic racism suppressing these histories, people operating in secrecy for their own survival, etc.—historians, artists, and critics should freely intervene within the archive to creatively fill in the gaps. This notion of creative intervention in history is liberating in a lot of ways and illuminates what you’ve been doing for some time, even before that concept was articulated.
SL: I have only a few times really felt like the ideas I’ve tried to engage in to keep myself up to date and current on critical race theory has directly given me a tool or a framework from which to understand what I’m doing in sculpture. Saidiya and I definitely found each other through our work, figuring out that we’re actually doing the same thing. It’s been exciting and profoundly comforting and supportive to feel so understood. I feel that this kind of work has precedence in several art movements, like Negritude and Surrealism, for example. In order to tell the truth, you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact. That’s always what I’ve been trying to do in sculpture. Before, I would’ve described my work as being engaged in creolization. And I am still supported by that idea, but this tool illuminated my process in a unique way. The concept of critical fabulation is very foundational at this point for Black feminist thought. It’s a tool that a lot of people use, not just myself.
ST: In your work, it manifests in so many different ways, but it felt particularly powerful in your approach to the sound installation that you made for the Guggenheim show, which dealt with the story of Debbie Africa, a member of the Black revolutionary organization MOVE who was imprisoned when she was eight months pregnant and gave birth secretly in jail. Your way of interpreting that story and refracting it through collaged snippets of sound seemed very illustrative of the notion of critical fabulation.
SL: Saidiya sent me a chapter of her book [‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls,’ ‘ Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals’ (W.W. Norton, 2020)] that discussed a sonic riot that happened in a women’s prison, and I was very interested in the idea of sonic protection. I had a conversation with the curator and writer Omar Berrada about this protest of sound and he said, ‘That reminds me of Debbie Africa when she got out of jail last year.’ Debbie had talked in ‘The Guardian’ about how women had protected her by using sound when she was going through labor and delivery by herself in her cell. Her prison mates, some of whom were also a part of MOVE, had sung songs and lullabies and coughed and made noises so that she could have some time with this baby. They were able to keep the guards from being aware that she had this baby for three days. After those three days, when it was discovered that the baby was born, it was taken away from her. This story became the primary text that underlaid my exhibition at the Guggenheim. For the sound installation, I collaborated with experimental musician and poet Moor Mother to try to recreate that idea of covering and protecting with sound. But, of course, we started to include sound from the MOVE bombing itself, which happened later, or from Polystyrene, who was a UK artist who had music that was popular at the time. We just included a lot of sound that probably didn’t happen in that prison at that time, although we based a lot of the music on popular music from that year.

Cover of ‘Wayward Lives’ by Saidiya Hartman. Courtesy Profile Books

ST: Like ‘I’m Every Woman.’
SL: ‘I’m Every Woman,’ Chaka Khan. It was amazing how on-topic a lot of the songs were, of the time. After the show, I was contacted by Mike Africa Jr., who was the baby that was born in that prison cell. Madeline [Hunt-Ehrlich, a filmmaker] and I went down to meet the family, and they told us about a song they remembered and who sang it. For some reason, I didn’t realize that whatever songs they were singing would probably also function as a lullaby for the baby. So it was actually a ’60s song, Maybe by The Chantels, that was sung. It was amazing to meet both Debbie and Mike Africa Jr., and Mike Africa Sr., and also to realize how completely off-base we were as we fabulated the story.
ST: But that’s the spirit of fabulation: It’s not meant to illustrate, it’s meant to evoke. Like you said, you’re collapsing time. And while Debbie’s story is at the heart of that piece, the work wasn’t meant to be a recreation of that moment. In the work, that moment became emblematic of something much larger: a community of women coming together to care for one another and how universal an experience that is throughout Black women’s communities.

‘That’s the spirit of fabulation: It’s not meant to illustrate, it’s meant to evoke … you’re collapsing time.’—Susan Thompson

SL: That also ties in to the story of formerly-enslaved writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs [1813-1897]: how, even during imprisonment, you can create agency, even just using your own body to make sound.
ST: Jacobs’s memoiristic volume, ‘Incidents in the ‘Life of a Slave Girl,’ is of course where the title ‘Loophole of Retreat’ came from. She spent seven years hiding from her enslaver in a garret of her grandmother’s home, and while this space was a prison of sorts it was also a space of respite from abuse, one that she had chosen willingly, if under duress. She called it her ‘loophole of retreat’. It’s such a beautiful concept.
One thing that really stuck with me as we were talking through the planning of the show was that you said a few different times, ‘I’m not interested in explaining racism to white people.’
SL: Yeah.

‘Explaining why someone is trying to oppress me just seems like a waste of my time. I call it racial kindergarten. I’m not going to stay there with you. Our scholarship moved on long, long ago.’—Leigh

ST: I think one of the reasons your work is so trenchant is that while, of course, you’re operating with an acknowledgment that racism is pervasive, you’re not highlighting instances of racism or settling upon a notion of Black pain as being the end of the story, or as something that invites white audiences to performatively self-flagellate. Instead, it’s about celebrating these moments of Black exceptionalism. It’s about bringing to light the histories and narratives of people who are facing unjust circumstances, yet who, like Harriet Jacobs, find a way within those circumstances to assert their agency, to reshape their experience by defining it for themselves in a self-determining way. And it’s not a Pollyanna-ish ‘let’s not dwell on the bad and just find the good in everything’ approach, but rather one that really centers resilience and strength rather than oppression.
SL: One of the functions of racism in the art world has been to keep people in a place where you’re somehow required to analyze it, to understand the systemic this and that and present a simplified explanation in your work. Because that is what a Black artist is expected to do. And then the work is killed by patronizing criticism. I spend a lot of time still trying to research the archive and the things left out of the archive and put this thing together. I’m so interested in our contributions and our failures. But explaining why someone is trying to oppress me just seems like a waste of my time. I call it racial kindergarten. I’m not going to stay there with you. Our scholarship moved on long, long ago. I want to engage in those ontologies that support my work, like when Hortense Spillers describes black flesh. I don’t believe that people don’t understand white privilege and systemic racism. I think they willfully deny it, and it’s really not my job to explain racism to white people. It’s like getting hit in the face and then taking on the burden of explaining to the person why they punched you. Absurd.
ST: Yeah, there’s that great Toni Morrison quote that the ‘function of racism is distraction,’ that ‘it keeps you from doing your work’ because you’re so busy arguing against it. People absolutely understand how racism operates in society, even when they claim otherwise. I had this experience on a tour I gave of your show where, at the beginning of the tour, I’m talking about how your work centers the Black female experience and presents Black women’s concerns, histories and desires as central rather than marginal. And this older white guy just walks out. But as he walks out, I overhear him say to his wife, ‘This is not for me.’ He meant it in a dismissive way. Basically, ‘I don’t like this’. But what he actually said was, ‘This is not for me’. He was immediately able to understand and articulate something that is central to the work, which is that it is emphatically and explicitly not ‘for’ him.
SL: Exactly.
ST: Part of my takeaway as an institutional curator was that it says a lot about museums and the kind of programming they’ve historically presented that these kinds of visitors really do expect the museum to reflect them: to affirm their presence and their culture. They so expect museums to center their subjectivity that they actually bristle when they don’t find that there.
SL: Bristle is a good word. They’re actually offended when they’re not the center of the story. It’s shocking, but it continues to be true. It’s always based on a lot of ignorance. I don’t know anyone who couldn’t get knowledge from a Toni Morrison novel. You know what I mean? It’s a big world out there.
ST: I’ve been thinking recently that, with so much art that can’t be viewed right now because it’s in galleries or museums that are shuttered, how happy I am that Brick House [a 16-foot-tall bronze bust installed on the High Line Plinth] is still there. She is still presiding over 10th Avenue and people who take their daily walks can see her. She’s up there. She is weathering it all.

Simone Leigh, Brick House, High Line, New York, 2019. © Simone Leigh. Photo: Timothy Schenck. Courtesy High Line

SL: It’s been enjoyable to have it out there in this time, especially while there’s so many Black women, first responders holding us together. Of course this bust is not a Black woman. It’s an anthropomorphic sculpture. A woman-house. I’m not sure how my work fits into the conversation around monuments because I’m not involved in portraiture. My sculpture can represent an idea, a state of being, or a group of many people, for example.
ST: I know some of your work is made at a more intimate scale. But if what’s really driving your passions right now are large-scale forms that need to be shaped and cast at the foundry, does the work just feel a bit on pause?
SL: Yeah, my work is mostly on pause. But I’ve been making roses!
ST: You know, that’s exactly what I imagined: you twirling roses at home.
SL: I’ve made 200 pounds of roses.

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