Simone Leigh - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • The esteemed recipient of the Golden Lion for her presentation at the United States pavilion in the 2022 Venice Biennale, Simone Leigh has been solidified as one of the most important artists of our time. She is currently the subject of a major solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, which will travel to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. in 2023–2024 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and California African American Museum, Los Angeles in a joint presentation in 2024–2025. Her nuanced sculpture practice is exemplified in Untitled, 2014. Taking the form of a cowrie shell, a central motif in Leigh's practice for over a decade, the present example brims with potent historic and cultural associations.

    “Her boundless energy, superb craftsmanship, and expanding vision kept her going, and the breakthrough, when it came, was so decisive that an invitation to represent her country at the Biennale seemed foreordained.”
    —Calvin Tompkins

    The cowrie is an object of currency and a symbol of wealth with both historic and contemporary resonance. In the present day, the Ghanian currency, Cedi, uses the Akan word for cowrie, while the Classical Chinese character radical for “money”, 貝, is based on the shell’s form. Historically, the cowrie is one of the oldest forms of currency, long used for trade in locations spanning Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania. It is now potently remembered for its role in the transatlantic slave trade, when the shells were exploited by 16th century European traders to buy and enslave people on the African continent. Leigh acknowledges these histories through her use of the symbolically loaded iconography, engaging with the cowrie through a postcolonial lens.

    “Leigh’s poetic sensibility at once unveils the beauty of that natural form, its relationship to oceanic trauma, and the radical negativity of its exchange. Despite the hauntedness of its reference and the aquatic ambivalence of its origin, the clay representation of the seashell is present and delicate, earthy and crafty, glazed and precious, really here.”
    —Malik Gaines

    The cowrie’s naturally occurring form is impossible to precisely recreate— one of its assets as currency was its impossibility to forge— yet Leigh approaches the symbol with elegance and novelty. Working in the thousands-of-years-old tradition of ceramics, Leigh proves her mastery of the material while asserting its position in the realm of fine art. Her work breaks through the barriers long faced by clay for its association with craft and women’s work to immense and overdue success. Addressing obstacles faced by Black individuals and women in both her choice of subject and material, Leigh describes her work as an “ongoing exploration of black female subjectivity.”i


    In the cowrie works Leigh embraces the history of ceramics while finding room for artistic innovation. The artist creates her unique cowries by using watermelon molds to fashion the oversized, rounded shape before the alchemical process of glazing and firing the work produces its distinctive surface. Reveling in the experimental nature of the material, Leigh describes: “You change the object by changing the atmosphere. The results are often not what you’d expect. After thirty years, I still don’t know exactly what’s coming out of the kiln, and I love that.”ii The present example, with its unique motley specks and gradations from deep indigo to sandy brown, is a testament to Leigh's experimental virtuoso. 


    Simone Leigh quoted in Calvin Tomkins, “The Monumental Success of Simone Leigh,” The New Yorker, March 21, 2022, online

    ii Ibid

    • Provenance

      Tilton Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2014

    • Artist Biography

      Simone Leigh

      American • 1967

      Born in Chicago and currently working in Brooklyn, New York, Simone Leigh is celebrated for her ground-breaking sculptural practice. Having studied ceramic traditions of West Africa and Native America, Leigh transforms ordinary materials into unflinching sculptures and shapes a conceptual arena for identity politics—exploring the complexity of blackness and visual representation of black bodies. She endows everyday signs with metaphors for black female subjectivity that simultaneously challenge stereotypes associated with African art.

      The artist first rose to prominence in 2016, on the occasion of her solo exhibition at the New Museum, New York, immediately followed by her show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Cementing her rapid ascent to the contemporary canon, Leigh’s inclusion in the Whitney Biennial, her solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York and the inaugural ‘Plinth’ project on the New York High Line, launched in June 2019, have collectively stunned critics and public.

      View More Works



terracotta, porcelain and metal base
7 x 17 x 9 in. (17.8 x 43.2 x 22.9 cm)
Executed in 2014.

Full Cataloguing

$50,000 - 70,000 

Sold for $114,300

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023