Massive Simone Leigh sculpture now greets Penn students

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People look at a newly installed sculpture by artist Simone Leigh on the University campus in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. Leigh’s 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman has been installed at the entrance to the heart of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

NEW YORK (AP) — A 16-foot-tall bronze bust of a Black woman by artist Simone Leigh has been installed in the heart of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, and is being called an “impressive and challenging” addition to the Ivy League school.

The bronze, 5,900-pound sculpture, “Brick House,” was lifted by crane Tuesday from a flatbed truck and lowered to its new home at the corner of 34th and Walnut streets, the gateway to College Green.

The University of Pennsylvania was founded by Benjamin Franklin, and many statues of that Founding Father dot the campus, which sits in a majority Black city.

“There really aren’t any large-scale public representations of Black women or African American women’s history on the campus,” said Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an associate professor of History of Art. “For Penn to be installing such a monumental, impressive and challenging piece of work on campus, I think is really fantastic.”

The work — the first of Leigh’s pieces to be installed on a college campus — depicts a Black woman’s head atop a form that suggests a skirt or perhaps a building. Another edition of “Brick House” is on display on New York City’s High Line through spring 2021.

“Brick House” is part of a series by Leigh that merges human form with diverse architectural elements. It was a gift from Penn alumni Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman.

“It will be quite arresting for people. They’ll stop and they’ll look and it’ll be something that you won’t just be able to walk by your first time without taking notice,” said Shaw.

Leigh was recently named the American representative to the 2022 Venice Biennale, the first Black woman to represent the U.S. at the prestigious international exhibition.

Her work has been displayed in solo and group shows at museums, galleries and exhibition spaces, including a solo exhibit at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City and a slot in the Whitney Biennial.

Shaw said “Brick House” examines the complicated history of Black female identity in the United States, including African influences and American stereotypes.

“It examines the histories of Black women, of people of African descent, of women of all colors. The multiple threads that make up the tapestry of our country are woven together in this enormous sculpture,” she said.

The artwork arrives at Penn during a time in which the nation’s large historical monuments are being rethought, particularly how and why Americans celebrate figures from their past.

“We’re coming off a summer where monuments and public space have been really under scrutiny, and people have been thinking more and more about what they want to have in the public square, in the roundabout and what they want to see on their way to work,” Shaw said.

Leigh joins a list of Black female artists whose large, bold works have recently graced public spaces, a list that includes Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures at the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Kara Walker’s work, both in New York City.

“It’s a moment for Black women artists in particular. A lot of work by these women is being seen in the public sphere,” said Shaw. “Black women sculptors are making really powerful pieces that take up a lot of space.”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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