The Director Collects: Simone Leigh

By Lauren Lessing

When I encountered Simone Leigh’s recent series of Face Jug sculptures at Chicago’s Art Expo last fall, I was struck not only by their beauty and consummate craftmanship but also by their eloquence. In complex ways, these ceramic vessels, which resemble the graceful heads, faces, and necks of dark-skinned female figures, celebrate the strength of black women and the persistence of African culture in the diaspora. I knew immediately that one of Leigh’s sculptures would complement the Stanley’s strong collections of African, modernist, feminist, and ceramic art while offering us new ways to teach.

In a 2018 exhibition at Luhring Augustine in New York, Leigh paired works from her Face Jug Series and other ceramic female figures with raffia forms that reference traditional African domestic architecture—specifically, the thatch-roofed houses of the Shona-speaking people in rural Zimbabwe, the Batammaliba of Benin and Togo, and the Fulani of Burkina Faso. In Figure with Skirt (Face Jug Series), a face jug emerges from one such hybrid representation of an African home. The origin of these forms is African, Leigh seems to assert, yet face jugs are also—like the artist herself—distinctly American.

Enslaved people in Edgefield, South Carolina created the first American face jugs in the early 1860s, just a few years after a group of Kikongo-speaking captives from central Africa were put to work in the pottery yards there. Inscriptions on some of the earliest face jugs, and the use of sacred white kaolin clay for eyes, suggest that their makers associated them with nkisi figures, power objects created throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa. It is not surprising that Leigh would evoke this complex history of displacement, translation, and survival in her work. She has described her art as “auto-ethnographic,” an approach that combines self-narrative with anthropological research. Raised by Jamaican parents in Chicago, she discovered African art through books and, later, through an internship at the Smithsonian Institution. Leigh’s Face Jug Series embodies her methodical search for her own cultural inheritance in the forms, techniques, and ethnographies of African and African American art. It charts her path to mastery through careful and exhaustive study.

Collectors have sometimes called traditional American face jugs “ugly jugs” because of their exaggerated, expressive features. Leigh’s vessels, on the other hand, are indisputably lovely. Elegant and dignified, they resemble cast metal busts of obas (rulers) from the royal court of Benin. The work we selected for the Stanley’s collection, 103 (Face Jug Series),is a salt-fired krater whose base resembles the long, elegant neck of a young woman. Leigh shaped the jug’s round body to represent a slightly upturned face with African features, and the vessel’s round spout suggests a top-knot or crown balanced on the subject’s head. The warm, lustrous glaze created by the salt firing process emphasizes the texture of the clay and, trickling in little rivulets across the subject’s forehead, evokes diagonal braids.  Since 2017, Leigh has enjoyed ever-increasing acclaim. This spring, she unveiled a sixteen-foot-tall bronze sculpture playfully titled Brick House as the inaugural installation for the High Line Plinth in New York City. Though monumental in scale, this majestic work depicting an African woman’s braid-crowned head and neck emerging from a dome-shaped structure is closely related to the face jugs and architectural forms Leigh exhibited the previous year, including the sculpture now in the Stanley’s collection.

Leigh low res for web

Simone Leigh, 103 (Face Jug Series), 2018, on view in the Stanley Visual Classroom

Photo by Steve Erickson