Simone Leigh’s Assembly of Black Feminist Creativity in Venice left me in awe

In what will be remembered as a historic moment that honored the work, creativity and intellect of black women, dozens of scholars, thought leaders, educators, writers, curators, authors and artists from across the African Diaspora gathered in Venice last week for Simone Leigh’s artist symposium, “Retreat loophole.” The program included lectures, film screenings, dance performances, music, round tables, etc. For three emotional days, from the perch of my home office in New York – and at times, my local Soho home – I watched the livestream, engulfed in the feeling of being seen, heard and perhaps finally understood from in a way that I’ve never quite been before – in a way that only a black woman could understand.

Taking its name from a section of Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 narrative Incidents in the life of a slave, the symposium was guided by five general themes, or “key guidelines:” “Marronage”, “Manual”, “Magical Realism”, “Medicine”, and “Sovereignty”. He unearthed a long legacy of scholarship, free thought, wild imaginations and the freedom that black women have continually worked to build for themselves despite centuries of racial and gender oppression.

“Black women’s work is often made invisible,” Kimberly Drew, author, social media star and associate director of Pace Gallery, told me, then commenting on the remarkable experience of the weekend. “This clouding of our rigor, scholarship and dedication gives the impression that we were not there. During these three days, I left feeling far from alone, inspired every moment to never take for granted what happens when black women come together.

Rashida Bumbray and Simone Leigh. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.

Curator and choreographer Rashida Bumbray organized the event, along with Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt. And from the moment Bumbray’s voice crossed my computer screen, to sing “hello everyone” to the audience, I knew this weekend would be filled with reclaiming strength through brotherhood and discovering empowerment in the ethic of “doing it ourselves” (as the saying goes). Pioneering black gallerist Linda Goode Bryant in a text currently on view at MoMA for a show celebrating his gallery Just Above Midtown).

The first theme of the conference, “Marronage,was informed by the work of Jamaican artist Deborah Anzinger. Anzinger herself was on hand with a presentation that offered a reassessment of both black labor and natural resource extraction. But many other inspired interventions from the past filled the event. One that sticks in my mind is the presentation by professor, poet and critic Canisia Lubrin of a series of 59 fictional codes in response to the infamous King Louis XIV. Code Black (The Black Code), the set of rules defining the conditions of enslaved Africans within the French Empire.

Las Nietas de Nonó performs during Loophole of Retreat: Venice

Las Nietas de Nonó performs at Loophole of Retreat: Venice, October 9, 2022. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.

The second theme, “Handbook”, was inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s “Handbook for General Housework” in her brilliantly moving book Whimsical Lives, Beautiful Experiences. While some presentations contextualized a set of conditions to which black women have been subjected through physical labor and gross bodily harm, I came away with the feeling that infinitely more important than these crushing constraints are the ways in which they, we and the collective ‘we persisted, forged uncharted paths and continued to envision new forms of freedom by revolutionizing personal intimacy and relatedness. Watching the show, I really felt that by keeping a space for black women to come together and share their knowledge, “Loophole of Retreat” existed as a haven, a respite, a place where the community could flourish.

Other event directives: “Magical Realism”, “Medicine”, and “Sovereignty”guided conversations and performances that made visible the creative work of poets, activists, authors and scholars from all parts of the diaspora. Women who were also mothers, wives, daughters and sisters came from Portugal and Berlin, from South Africa and Brazil, and from all over the United States to share their knowledge and create a space of joy , creative freedom and community through brotherhood. To take one example, the literary and artistic collective Black Quantum Futurism incorporated spoken word and poetry into rhythmic music and the ancient sounds of maracas.

Black Quantum Futurism performs at the Loophole of Retreat

Black Quantum Futurism performs at Loophole of Retreat: Venice, October 8, 2022. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.

“‘Loophole of Retreat’ beautifully captured the thoughtfulness, joy, sacrifice and rigor that is often practiced in the black feminist imagination,” said Taylor Renee Aldridge, curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, after the ‘event. “One of the many memorable moments for me was witnessing the deference between generations and peers: Simone’s reverence for Lorraine [O’Grady]Rashida’s reverence for Simone, and Simone expressing her gratitude for her own daughter.

Elsewhere over the weekend, the phenomenal Legacy Russell highlighted works by painters Naudline Pierre and Firelei Báez, and hosted a captivating conversation with artist Ja’Tovia Gary after a screening of his work. Russell inspired the audience by speaking forcefully of the collective purpose represented by the event. “At a time in the world where the visibility of black femininity continues to rise, but where enduring equity and representation still require constant vigilance, care and strategic work, being ‘in the loophole’ punctures the boundaries and shatters the myth of Black Exceptionalism and Black Alienation – a reminder of the power of collective congress and its meteoric ability to transform the world by creating space for shared information.

Guests share a moment during Loophole of Retreat: Venice

Guests share a moment during Loophole of Retreat: Venice. Photo by Glorija Blazinsek.

As I reflect on the exuberant and utterly transformative weekend of “Loophole of Retreat,” I find myself mesmerized by this surplus of black female creativity, presented in a way I’ve never seen. All of the friends I spoke with during the retreat and in the days that followed commented that they were “still processing” and needed “time to unpack”. It took me days to breathe.

When I finally surfaced, I recognized that through the scholarship, care and genius of Simone Leigh, Rashida Bumbray, Saidiya Hartman, Deborah Anzinger, Zara Julius, Ja’tovia Gary, Mabel O. Wilson and so many others which touched me, I left the symposium changed forever. Perhaps by a force of nature or deep ancestral ties, I felt protected, seen and celebrated by every black woman I have ever known or yet to meet, privileged not only to bask in our glory, but also to be of service to so many black women.

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About Bernice D. Brewer

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