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My name is Stephanie Sparling Williams and I am the Associate Curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, located in South Hadley, Massachusetts. I also teach at the intersection of Art History and Black Studies, and in this recording will offer some background on sculpture Sentinel IV, made by internationally acclaimed artist, Simone Leigh.
Leigh is celebrated for her deep formal investigations into familiar objects, which she reworks in order to destabilize their original signs and connotations. Whether breast fetishes, enlarged cowry shells, or glazed stoneware inspired by antebellum South Carolinian face vessels, these objects represent Leigh’s sustained meditations on Black women and their bodies as a kind of material culture—to use the artist’s words—and as containers for history, trauma, and knowledge.
Monumental in scale, Sentinel IV is silent, still, rooted. At ten-and-a-half feet tall, this slender guardian with its elongated proportions and faceless bowl crown exudes a mystical presence. In Leigh’s hands, bronze becomes sentient—the smooth, black, semi-reflective surface glistens radiantly where it stands in the Anna Hiss Gymnasium courtyard.
Leigh explores the Black female form through its material and cultural associations with notions of labor, specifically objects that amalgamate the body with tools for everyday use. The figure of Sentinel IV is one such cultural object, and is likely familiar to those who have ever traveled to South Africa.
Used as a ceremonial spoon in its original context, this nineteenth- and early twentieth-century object became popular among tourists drawn to its stunning artistry and portability.
Meant to represent feminine beauty and sensuality, the carved form originated in its use as ceremonial cutlery often accompanying other Zulu wedding rituals. The wooden object, notably anthropomorphized in female form, signified the bride’s entry into her husband’s family and home. Often given by the bride’s father, the spoon is kept safe in a woven satchel. Those found in regional tourist shops, however, are often displayed upright, like Sentinel IV, supported by tiny stands, and the souvenirs range in size from a few inches to several feet, with designs varying from wide brimmed bowls and thick, beaded stem handles, to delicate, sinuous, and anthropomorphic stems with circular pitted bowls.
The Black female form in the artist’s sculptural practice more broadly is transformed into an aesthetic object to be looked at and admired, rather than touched and used. Leigh simultaneously liberates the Black female form from a cycle as a ritual implement, in this instance, and propels it into its setting here by way of the commercial fine art world. What do you see? How are you reading and understanding this form today in its new context?
For me, Leigh’s sentinel stakes radical claim to existence in a moment when Black existence, in particular, is persistently under threat. Sentinel IV holds space and holds court—an apt landmark poised to see, hear, and represent—to project Black presence into the future of The University of Texas at Austin and beyond, while bearing witness to this indelible present.
Who: Simone Leigh
What: Sentinel IV
Where: 2501 Wichita St
Why: Sentinel IV is the first work in Landmarks’ collection created by a Black woman artist, Simone Leigh. She is inspired by objects of the African diaspora. Diaspora refers to cultures and people that originated in the African continent and circulated either through forced or voluntary means around the world.
Leigh’s sculpture is based on a ceremonial spoon from the Zulu people of southern Africa. During wedding ceremonies, the spoon is exchanged and symbolizes the joining of the two families. After the wedding, the spoon is often saved and displayed in the family’s home.
Can you think of any objects in your home that represent significant events from your family’s history? How do you use them? Why are they important?