The first time I laid eyes on Simone Leigh’s monumental Brick House sculpture I was on the bus heading uptown on 10th Avenue.
I looked up and there she was, gazing out over the oncoming traffic from her perch on the 30th Street overpass, which I am told is now known as The Plinth. A month or so passed before I was able to pay her a proper visit and find out what she is all about.
Brick House is a 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman with a torso that combines the forms of a skirt and a clay house. The sculpture’s head is crowned with an afro framed by cornrow braids, each ending in a cowrie shell. Brick House is the inaugural commission for the High Line Plinth, a new landmark destination for major public artworks in New York City.
This is the first monumental sculpture in Leigh’s Anatomy of Architecture series, an ongoing body of work in which the artist combines architectural forms, from regions as varied as West Africa and the Southern United States, with the human body. The sculpture’s title (which is familiar to most as the title to popular 1977-era song by The Commodores) comes from the term for a strong Black woman who stands with the strength, endurance, and integrity of a house made of bricks.
Brick House references numerous architectural styles: Batammaliba architecture from Benin and Togo, the teleuk dwellings of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon and Chad, and the restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Mississippi. The sculpture contrasts sharply against the landscape it inhabits, where glass-and-steel towers shoot up from among older industrial-era brick buildings, and where architectural and human scales are in constant negotiation. Resolutely facing down 10th Avenue, Leigh’s powerful Black female figure challenges us to consider the architecture around us, and how it reflects customs, values, priorities, and society as a whole.
Leigh works across sculpture, video, installation, and social practice, stitching together references from different historical periods and distant geographical locations. As a sculptor, Leigh works predominantly in ceramics—a medium that she mastered early in her career—continually pushing the boundaries of her chosen material by working in new methods and larger scales. In her intersectional practice, Leigh focuses on how the body, society, and architecture inform and reveal one another. She examines the construction of Black female subjectivity, both through specific historical figures such as Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham, and more generally through overlapping historical lineages across Europe, Africa, the US, and the Caribbean.
The High Line Plinth presents a series of art installations that rotate every eighteen months. Designed as the focal point of the Spur, the newest section of the park that opened in spring 2019, the Plinth is the first space on the High Line dedicated solely to new commissions of contemporary art.
Simone Leigh’s Brick House will be on View on The High Line Plinth (at the Spur), 30th St. and 10th Ave., NYC, Through September 2020. (Update: Due to Covid 19, Brick House has been Extended to Spring 2021.)