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A gleaming dark brown sculpture of a female form seen in 3/4 view, from the knees up. Her shoulders press against the wall, while her neck inclines her head forward at an angle. Her arms hang at her side with her hands pressed on top of her thighs. While her prominent breasts are fully delineated, the rest of her figure is obscured by a full-length abstracted dress. A gleaming dark brown sculpture of a female form seen in 3/4 view, from the knees up. Her shoulders press against the wall, while her neck inclines her head forward at an angle. Her arms hang at her side with her hands pressed on top of her thighs. While her prominent breasts are fully delineated, the rest of her figure is obscured by a full-length abstracted dress.

Simone Leigh’s Sharifa

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Standing more than nine feet tall and cast in a gleaming dark bronze, the female figure rests with her back pressed to the wall.

Her smoothly rendered face is beautiful and pensive, focused down in thought. Her body, with the exception of her long arms and prominent breasts, is hidden underneath the abstracted form of a floor-length dress—just the toe of her right shoe peeks out. Her weight is palpable, and yet she still seems to tower.

A gleaming dark brown sculpture of a young woman seen in frontal view. Her head inclines downward. Her arms hang at her side with her hands pressed on top of her thighs. While her prominent breasts are fully delineated, the rest of her figure is obscured by a full-length abstracted dress. The squared toe of her right foot peeks out.

Simone Leigh. Through prior gift of Mrs. Frank R. Lillie; The Lacy Armour Endowment Fund. Image courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

The powerful work, Sharifa, by Chicago-born artist Simone Leigh was recently acquired by the Art Institute and is what the artist has called “the first portrait I’ve ever done.” The subject is the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem Is Nowhere, a 2011 history of the storied neighborhood. She is also one of Leigh’s closest friends and a frequent participant in her projects.

The sculpture grew out of a video project Leigh produced for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in which she asked Rhodes-Pitts and others to recall and recreate their body position during childbirth. “Sharifa was just leaning against the wall, thinking, and that was the start of this sculpture,” Leigh has said. Though many of her sculptures use friends and colleagues as their subjects, before Sharifa, the artist had resisted calling them portraits. Rhodes-Pitts, as both a historian and a mother, embodies the labor of black women that Leigh has long centered in her work.

A gleaming dark brown sculpture of a female form seen in 3/4 view, from the knees up. Her shoulders press against the wall, while her neck inclines her head forward at an angle. Her arms hang at her side with her hands pressed on top of her thighs. While her prominent breasts are fully delineated, the rest of her figure is obscured by a full-length abstracted dress.

Simone Leigh. Through prior gift of Mrs. Frank R. Lillie; The Lacy Armour Endowment Fund. Image courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

Over the past 20 years, Leigh has been celebrated for a sculptural practice that draws from a diverse range of African diasporic traditions. Her work encompasses sculptures in mediums ranging from ceramic to bronze as well as videos, installations, and community-centered gatherings. Rooted in her exploration of black female subjectivity, Leigh’s sculptures give form to the history, knowledge, and experience that a body can hold. The artist has continuously and critically engaged with the idea of the enclosure or vessel, and many of her sculptures combine the female form with jugs and jars, along with references to the protective thatched roofing of East African architecture that are constant in her practice. Leigh’s 2017 work Dunham, which joined the Art Institute’s collection in 2019, is a prime example.


Simone Leigh

Purchased with funds provided by Marilyn and Larry Fields; Claire and Gordon Prussian Fund for Contemporary Art


This sculpture is named for another native Chicagoan: pioneering choreographer Katherine Dunham. Dunham's dance practice introduced movement styles from Africa and the Caribbean into the Western vocabulary of modern dance.

Sharifa is one of the nine sculptures Leigh created as part of Sovereignty, the exhibition she made for the American Pavilion as the US representative at the 2022 Venice Biennale. Leigh transformed the pavilion’s Jeffersonian architecture, installing an allover thatched roof and wooden beams along the building’s facade, transmuting the American origin myth from its founding fathers to a legacy of African culture and labor.

As in numerous past exhibitions, Leigh emphasized the importance of community knowledge by hosting gatherings of intellectuals in the exhibition. In tandem with her Venice Biennale presentation, Leigh also organized artists, academics, and activists to gather for Loophole of Retreat: Venice, held nearby. These events underline how Leigh’s work not only references the work of her intellectual antecedents but also creates room for a community of scholars to participate in her exhibition projects.

A color photograph shows a low-storied building with a small courtyard. The building has a thatched roof and rough lumber columns. Inside the courtyard, a large deep bronze sculpture, as tall as the building, is composed of a large concave disc atop a slender neck and breasts that drape flattened across the chest.

Leigh’s transformed US pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennial, where Sharifa was originally shown. Her sculpture Satellite is seen here in the courtyard of the pavilion.


Photo by Timothy Schenck. © Simone Leigh, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

The Art Institute of Chicago offers a special context for Leigh’s work: in addition to reflecting the artist’s Chicago roots, the museum’s wide-ranging geographic and historic collection provides an opportunity for her work to live alongside historic sculptures from Africa, the Caribbean, and the American South that have informed it. Leigh’s sculpture also enters a generative and inter-generational dialogue with major contemporary sculptural works in the museum’s collection by a range of artists including Charles Ray, Richard Hunt, Martin Puryear, Katarina Frisch, Kerry James Marshall, and Yinka Shonibare, among others.

—Giampaolo Bianconi, associate curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

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