The University of Pennsylvania’s art collection includes over 8,000 works, 5,000 of which are currently installed across 116 campus locations; 59 of these are public art works: monuments, busts, sculptures, doorway gates and lintels, a few fountains, and a couple of murals. These works adorn the campus but they also proclaim values and make assertions. In concert with regulatory and policing practices, they suggest who “studies” and who is “studied”; they offer visual, material and affectual affirmation for well-nurtured narratives of Penn’s past, present and future.
Of these 59 public artworks, Simone Leigh’s Brick House is the first by an African-American woman to be installed on the grounds of our campus–a remarkable, catalytic reckoning with the belatedness of the University.
Brick House is not only a stunning work but a stunning work in a robust multidisciplinary practice that acts to reframe, resituate and reclaim history and aesthetic vocabularies to recognize the ongoing labor of Black women and femmes and the foundational importance of their work to every aspect of political, social, economic, religious and cultural life. The cast of Brick House that sits on our campus gathers force with the one sitting atop the Spur at 30th St and 10th Ave on NYC’s High Line. And Brick House also tethers to and extends Leigh’s 2014 work, Funk, God, Jazz, and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, in which she installed a free medical clinic centering the work of Black female-identified herbalists, nurses and healers. As Brick House is bonded to the collective Leigh founded, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWAforBLM), and to their action, September 2017, occupying the New Museum's Lobby, Facade, 5th and 7th Floors, and Theater for four hours.
No one needs a Penn ID to encounter Brick House.
The work addresses those connected to the university, temporarily or ongoingly, as well as those who are not but who walk, drive or ride by the campus on the way to somewhere else or who walk through campus to visit a family member at HUP or who come onto campus to rest or nap or exercise or run around or read a book or make a phone call or feed the squirrels or to do any number of other small activities.
The catalytic power of Brick House is that the work arrives on campus with publics of its own and a force that is only accelerating.
Simone Leigh’s Brick House powerfully articulates the complexities of black identity in the United States today while conjuring up the haunting afterlife of the slave trade. The work contains multiple allusions to architectural signifiers from Africa. It also references slave infrastructure from the American South. Brick House does all of this from the doubly othered body of the Black female. Installed at the most prominent gateway entrance to the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, the monumentally scaled bronze sculpture opens up new meanings specific to the University itself. The work serves as a reminder of the University’s own problematic relationship to slavery and its unreconciled history of abuse to othered bodies. The sculpture’s presence is stoic, but not impassive. The figure takes in the surroundings, but she is without eyes. It stands as a sentinel that both reminds us of what was and warns us of what still is and what could be.
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of City and Regional Planning
To borrow from the Commodores song, Leigh’s 16-foot Brick House monument is “mighty mighty” in its physical details and the story it performs for multiple audiences in our civic environment.
As a Black member of the Weitzman Design community with natural hair, finally witnessing a monument representing everyday Blackness—her flat-twists and her ovular Afro—feels like an ice breaker for an ongoing conversation about what valuing Black lives means culturally in elite spaces. Leigh’s artwork presses us to normalize something not only historically shamed as unprofessional, but could still legally get you fired in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (which has yet to pass The CROWN Act, banning the racist practice statewide).
Brick House feels like affirmation that, at Weitzman, we can design beauty through resistance. The national coverage its garnered demonstrates an audience hungry for it. We can convert this cultural moment in the wake of an existential election, a pandemic, and Black activism into concrete milestones. While many are asking themselves and others what it means to be antiracist, this image could hardly be more plain-spoken.
Wrapped in heaving blankets, I could not yet see her face. I watched as she was slowly lowered down to the ground. For a moment it felt as though it was just us. It was quiet. It was as if she was directing the men with her mind. No adjustments were needed. I was frozen. Our faces locked. Sigh. Smile. Bright orange and yellow leaves swirled around her as if a spell had just been cast. I felt a deep sense of peace.
I cannot count the number of times I made the walk from my studio in the Franklin building and the Meyerson building. Sometimes carrying wood. Other times mentally preparing myself for a final critique. Ten years ago, if she had been there, I would have felt the same sense of peace. Perhaps on the many trips back and forth I would have stopped to talk to her. Brainstormed wild ideas, cried, or even stopped to re-energize.
I received my MFA from the Weitzman School of Design almost ten years ago. There were not many Black female artists in my program that year. I was one of two. I am proud, honored, and inspired to have Simone Leigh’s beautiful work on campus. Brick House is a beautiful sculpture the represents so much more than I can truly express. She represents a universal shift and awakening. She will protect, energize, and inspire young black artists like myself. While also reminding the world that we are here, creative, beautiful, powerful, and magical. Now I work helping others within the Penn community to bring their projects to life. Simone inspires me to never stop pushing, pulling, and exploring the materiality of my life. Perhaps, one day, my work will find a home at Penn.