Sentinel (Mami Wata), 2020-21
Born in Chicago in 1967, Leigh creates objects and environments that center Black life and interrogate stereotypes associated with Black women. In her sculptural practice, Leigh draws on materials and forms traditionally associated with African art to investigate the intersection of cultures and geographies, and to explore ideas about the female body, race, beauty, and community.
Originally commissioned for the exhibition Prospect.5 in New Orleans, Leigh’s 2020-21 bronze sculpture Sentinel (Mami Wata) is a work that invites reflection on the way African cultural symbols traverse the African diaspora, shifting and metamorphosing as they intersect with local traditions. Leigh describes the sculpture as “my interpretation of a West African water spirit, a deity who has destructive powers as well as creative-generative ones.” The work takes as inspiration the figure of Mami Wata, an animistic deity that is celebrated throughout Africa and the African diaspora, including the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Mami Wata is expressed in unique ways and called different names in various cultures throughout the diaspora as syncretic religious contexts have merged her persona with Christian saints or indigenous spiritual figures. However, her essence as a beguiling water spirit endures across geographies. Representations of Mami Wata often take the form of a mermaid or snake charmer, an amphibious corporeality that emphasizes the fraught relationship between people of African descent and water in the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade.
Leigh represented the US at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2022. In 2023, the first comprehensive survey of her work will open at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Leigh has had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and the New Museum, New York. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York organized her 2019 solo exhibition, Loophole of Retreat, following her award of the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize, and her work can be found in private and public collections including the Guggenheim Museum, Hammer Museum, and Pérez Art Museum, Miami. She is represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery.