The Brooklyn-based sculptor Simon Lee, whose major works focus on the social history and subjective experience of black women, will represent the United States at the next Venice Biennale in April 2022. The first African-American woman to receive this honor is among the most prestigious in the art world, Ms. Lee was chosen by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State on the recommendation of museum specialists and artists convened by the National Arts Fund.
“I feel like part of a larger group of artists and thinkers who have reached a critical mass,”
The last two American representatives of the Biennale – Martin Purier, also a sculptor, in 2019 and Mark Bradford, an artist, in 2017 – are also black artists. The next edition was originally scheduled for May 2021, but the pandemic forced it to be postponed for a year.
Working primarily in ceramics, Ms. Lee has long increased the workload of black women. She has merged images of their bodies with folk architectural forms from Africa or utilitarian vessels such as jugs and pitchers made and used in the African diaspora.
These distinctive figures, sometimes impersonal and indulging in abstraction, have been on trial in New York recently, from the Whitney Biennale in 2019 to a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum after the artist won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2018. The majestic Mrs. Lee 16’s high-legged bronze bust, entitled “Brick House”, looking down Tenth Avenue from the High Line Plinth from 2019, celebrates the black female beauty and strength – often not celebrated in public. (Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu recently proposed another alternative to the monuments in his sculptures of female figures for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
Ms. Lee’s exhibition at the American Pavilion, a 1930s space with a rotunda and Doric columns, was commissioned by Jill Medvedev, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and its chief curator, Eva Respini, who also organized the artist’s first exhibition at the Boston Museum in 2023.
Ms. Medvedow said she could not have come up with an artist at the time who was better suited to represent the United States. “The idea of Simon Lee in Venice disrupts the story of more than 400 years of American history,” she said. “Her sculptures really command the space they occupy. The scale and presence and magnificence of her figures are so demanding on visibility. “
The neoclassical building is located in Giardini, a Venetian park that hosts national pavilions. Mrs. Lee plans to make a monumental bronze statue in the open in front, surrounded by the architectural colonnade of the building, and a series of sculptures and installations in the five inner galleries. “It’s surprisingly similar to working in a space like the White House, which just has a lot of layers of meaning,” said Ms. Lee, who plans to use ceramic materials, raffia and steel in addition to bronze. “I am aware of these stories as I build the exhibition.”
She declined to go into more detail about what she intends to do, given that the show is a year and a half old and could change, except to say it will be backed up by some black feminist theory texts. which is the way she usually conceptualizes her exhibitions.
The “stiffness” of the American pavilion can be difficult to manage, said Cecilia Alemanni, director and chief curator of High Line Art, who commissioned Ms. Lee’s “Brick House” and served as artistic director of the 2022 International Group Exhibition at the Biennale. Venice.
“On the high line, Simone encountered the history of sculpture and monumentality,” Ms Alemanni said, noting that the artist had chosen the traditional technique of bronze figurative sculpture – the same environment as the Confederate statues now being removed from public spaces. presenting a symbol of something completely different. “It’s a similar connection to history when it comes to the American pavilion,” she continued. “Her challenge will be to metaphorically turn this space into stories that she will be able to tell through her works of art.”
In partnership with Spelman College, the Atlanta Women’s College of Liberal Arts, the artist and curators at the Institute of Contemporary Art will work directly with students on all aspects of the Venice Commission as part of a training program for museum professionals and scholars. “This is one of my favorite parts of the project,” said Ms. Lee, who often collaborates with black feminist communities in her own performances and video-based works.
“Given Simone’s black female subjectivity,” Ms. Medvedu said, Spelman’s partnership felt like a huge opportunity and part of this belated cultural change about who should be represented and how we define representation in our field. “