Simone Leigh’s Powerful Meditation on Race and Healthcare Suffers, Ironically, from Lack of Access

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Within intimate relationships, symptoms of passive aggression range from mild irritation to buckling torpor. When the relationship is between entire populations and corrupted institutions, cataclysms ensue. Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room, at New Museum until September 18, proceeds from an understanding of the American medical establishment as passive aggressor at a societal scale – a beacon of care that has devolved into a stronghold of opportunistic neglect. This is less an exhibition than a model alternative to this irredeemable failure. In orchestrating it, Leigh’s resolve is as stunning as her institutional host is frustrating, suspended between good intentions and a need to keep the coffers full.

As if anticipating accusations of charlatanism, Leigh has said that she is not an expert in healthcare. But her guiding intuition seems uncontroversial: insurers, for-profit healthcare providers, and pharmaceutical companies maintain exorbitant prices that bar working-class people from proactively maintaining their own health. When desperate conditions inevitably arrive, this Faustian compact doubles down, forcing decisions between debt and life. For African Americans, the resultant distrust is exacerbated by memories of betrayal. A case in point is The Tuskagee Experiment, in which Southern blacks were coaxed into studies on Syphilis in exchange for treatments never delivered.

It’s to Leigh’s credit that I know of this history at all. The Waiting Room offers myriad lessons in alternative care methods, as well as glimpses into history by way of didactic information and pedagogically-trained docents. Later, at home, you may find yourself researching the cruelties of Tuskagee, and rightly feel as if you’re still within Leigh’s work. This is in stark contrast to the sculptures for which she is best known – ink-black ceramic busts bedecked with ersatz flowers, and facsimile cowry shells cast from watermelons. Capacious in their swirling of black pride and malignant stereotype, these objects nevertheless gather viewers around a central object. Here, Leigh’s vision of what an exhibition is, and what it can do for people, prioritizes a porosity, which mirrors that of the bodies she wants to remedy.

Simone Leigh, "Landscape, from the series Anatomy of Architecture," 2016, digital collage. Courtesy the artist.

Simone Leigh, “Landscape, from the series Anatomy of Architecture,” 2016, digital collage. Courtesy the artist.

In an ironic twist, this enlightening function is hampered by a problem of access. In order to experience the exhibition, you need to reach the museum’s fifth floor. This requires passing through its lobby – a futuristic boutique proffering fancy books and refreshments. It’s hard to imagine The Waiting Room’s target audience, economically strained people, caring to walk this gauntlet, where participation is synonymous with spending money. This problem compounds that of the gallery’s $20.00 ticket price, which Leigh has worked around by arranging free workshops outside of museum hours. You could say that it was nice of the museum to make this concession. But the separation of non-paying and upwardly-mobile visitors suggests a non-alignment of the institution’s structural and symbolic motives. This is a place that has hung a sailing ship from its façade. It would have been nice to see its ambition in exhibition design match Leigh’s radical hope.

Those who do find Leigh’s exhibition will be rewarded with a poignant challenge to a conservative understanding of what art is, and what it can do. This fillip is provided by a glass-walled apothecary tended by docents, wearing chain-mail aprons. Masses of dried herbs fill jars, and chamomile wafts through the air. Free acupuncture, yoga, and meditation sessions are announced on a chalkboard, while piled sandbags bolster the scene. During my first visit, the meditation pillows sat empty, in front of a projected photograph, compositing images of colonial and racist architecture: the cartoon image of a black woman rising out of the bricked dome of Shell gas station in Edward Weston’s Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi (1941) dissolves in and out of Leon Fichea’s domed French Equatorial Africa pavilion, International Colonial Exposition, Paris (1931). The image is Leigh’s Landscape (2016), a visual purgatory for the architectural courtiers of Colonialism, and now an alter to her healing ritual.

The Waiting Room’s lineage is complex, and engenders complex responses. In 1973, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale mandated that all party chapters construct free health clinics. These were protected from police assault, by the sort of sandbags Leigh uses symbolically, here. Although her use may be theatrical, the Panthers’ was not – only four years earlier, Chicago had police assassinate Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton in his sleep. Leigh also draws on largely unknown collectives of black women, such as The United Order of Tents, founded in 1867 by two former slaves, Annetta M. Lane and Harriett R. Taylor.

My own references linked to a European patrimony more than I would like to admit. Looking to the apothecary – which included a mud that protects against the sun, and a rose-colored powder, acquired in South Africa as a protection against police – I thought of Joseph Beuys’s sorcerous mending of Europe’s postwar soul. More problematically, Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 pedagogical experiment Gramsci Monument hung in mind. In contrast to the colonialist undertones of Hirschhorn’s project, Leigh’s work activates histories and practices specifically relevant to her desired audience – black women. Her Free People’s Medical Clinic (2015) offered basic health services within the former home of Dr. Josephine English, the first African American woman to have an OB/GYN practice in New York. It’s tempting to say that these projects exchange art for politics. But politics is already an art – a coercive aesthetic craft. Disappointingly, The Waiting Room foregoes all of the semiotic and symbolic play of Leigh’s previous work. But it does so in order to rejoin a more communal purpose. In turn, this decision opens an experiential fissure. During regular hours, the exhibition, which requires participation in order to fully be itself, often feels empty, producing a feeling of loneliness. During the scheduled clinics, in contrast, it stimulates a rare social nourishment.

Though little known, Fred Hampton’s death is common knowledge in comparison to that of Esmin Greene, who passed away on the waiting-room floor of a Brooklyn hospital, after being ignored for twenty-four hours. Although the title of Leigh’s show tributes Greene, depictions of her, or her death, are absent. The photographs are horrible – eerily still in contrast to the raucous confusion familiar from videos of police violence. While refusing the convoluted political and fetishist power of death images, Leigh maintains a memory of the hellish conditions that propagate them. These memories seem to amplify her resolve to search autonomous care – a difficult paradox, which Leigh courts beautifully.

How do people who feel themselves to be good justify deadly neglect, such as that which caused Greene’s death? Two appropriated videos follow this question into the genealogy of our inability to see racism. In 9 O’Clock, Try and be Pretty (2016) we see a young black woman in saturated 1960s film-stock being summoned via telephone. If everything goes well, she’ll have a job as a nurse. Speaking with the white, male doctor, she says:

“Has Mr. Copeland told you?”

“Told me what?”

“I’m colored”

“What color are you?”

“I’m a negro”

“Have you always been a negro or are you just trying to be fashionable? Come in at 9:00, try and be pretty.”

In response to this directive, the interviewing woman produces coquettish laughter. Through this exchange, the suggestion is made that condescension is natural to the employer-worker power dynamic, especially that between a white man and a black woman – the former constantly enjoying the self image of authority figure, in popular culture, the latter persistently framed as subordinate. Leigh’s gesture is to reframe and loop this ideological mechanism. Systemic abuse is distilled, here, into a single exchange that drones on (as such exchanges do in life) ad nauseam.

***

Prior to joining a scheduled meditation dedicated to Black Lives Matter, I worried my presence would be an incursion. In her foundational description of cultural appropriation, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance (1992), bell hooks explains how white involvement in black culture mostly serves the desire of white people. This is often true even when such involvements are carried out under altruistic auspices, where the desire is to alleviate shame. The warm welcome I received did not alleviate my worry. Leigh’s effort courts an intense conflict, that between her radical inclusivity and the alienating nature of museums along lines of class, as well as race.

During the meditation, the group was asked to extend sympathy to the wayward souls of police officers, in addition to their victims. I thought immediately of James Baldwin’s comment, in a debate with William Buckley, that “something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.” Leigh’s exhibition shares the revolutionary eccentricities of Baldwin’s statement, asserting room for a female protagonist in narratives of oppression, and broadening our view of the conduits through which violence moves, to include the neglect of bodies not useful to capitalism, except as opportunities for the extraction of profit. And all of this before completing a gesture that would not seem radical in a time and place less riven by cynicism – the proposal of a solution.

It was a significant sacrifice, for Leigh to have left her more well known sculptors and videos momentarily by the wayside, in the service of this project. It seems a shame, as well. You want to believe that objects as richly infused as hers, traffic their own healing properties. The Waiting Room reminds us that these symbolic functions of art are deeply contingent on an audience that is well and cared for. Stress impedes the slow engagement that contemporary art demands. And you know what they say about desperate times.

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