A new ‘gateway’ sculpture: UPenn installs Black woman monument

“Brick House” by Simone Leigh draws attention to the importance of Black women in art and culture.

She’s called “Brick House,” and like the woman in the song by the Commodores, she’s “mighty mighty.”

The sixteen-foot bronze sculpture was installed on Tuesday at 34th and Walnut Street on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania: a woman’s head with strong African features, minus eyes, perched atop a domed mound. The bell shape can be read any number of ways: as a building, such as the teleuk mud dwellings of the Musgum people of Cameroon; or a wide hoop skirt, such as those popular among the upper class of America’s antebellum South.

The woman’s head, crowned with cornrows, appears to be gazing into the far distance.

“It comes at you as much as you toward it,” said Glenn Fuhrman, an alumnus of Penn’s Wharton School who donated the sculpture to his alma mater. The co-founder of the investment company MSD Capital is also a prominent art collector.

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Fuhrman said he first saw the sculpture when it was just one among many proposals for New York’s High Line park. When it was ultimately selected for that commission, he bought two editions of it: one for Penn and another for himself.

“It’s physically beautiful. It’s a beautiful woman,” he said. “There have been beautiful women in art history since the dawn of time, but this is atypical in that this is a beautiful woman of color.”

The artist of “Brick House” is Simone Leigh, who for the last 10 years has become a star of America’s contemporary art world. Originally from Chicago, she has had her work exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in New York, among many other museums. A few weeks ago she was selected to represent the United States at the 2022 Venice Biennale, the first Black woman to do so.

Simone Leigh, creator of the “Brick House” sculpture at UPenn. (Courtesy of University of the Arts.)

Her work primarily addresses the representation of Black women through multiple historical lenses. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, an art history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says Leigh’s work is becoming increasingly relevant, particularly as Kamala Harris has become vice president-elect.

“Black women’s stories have been a big part of this election cycle,” said Shaw, who was involved with bringing the “Brick House” to campus. “Black women’s voices have been a part of the scene all along, but at this moment we are beginning to see how powerful Black women have been in history and politics and contemporary American art.”

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While the installation on Tuesday morning might seem sudden — it was not announced in advance — bringing “Brick House” to Penn was not a response to the current political moment. The gift and site preparations had been in the planning for over a year. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it is intended to be a permanent part of campus.

“We hesitate to use the word ‘permanent’ for anything, especially during the current time,” said Joann Mitchell, UPenn’s senior vice president for institutional affairs and chief diversity officer. “We hope it will be a gateway signature piece for our campus. It will be there for many decades to come.”

“Brick House,” a sixteen-foot bronze sculpture by artist Simone Leigh, was installed on the University of Pennsylvania’s Campus at 34th and Walnut Streets Tuesday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mitchell would like to see the sculpture used to stimulate conversation around racial histories and campus diversity, conversations which can sometimes be difficult. Leigh’s simple shape refers to many ideas simultaneously, including the African diaspora and the politics of Black hair. The imposing scale of the piece delivers its own message about the place of Black women in American culture.

“But, also, it touches on history that is not so positive,” said Shaw. “For example, it looks a lot like the skirt of Aunt Jemima, or the Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottle: a round, antebellum skirt that was associated with the mammy figure, leading up through the nostalgia for the plantation South that was popular well into the 20th century.”

Shaw says Leigh was inspired, in part, by Mammy’s Cupboard, a novelty restaurant along Highway 61 in Mississippi whose skirt-shaped building resembles an antebellum Black nursemaid.

“Brick House,” a sixteen-foot bronze sculpture by artist Simone Leigh, was installed on the University of Pennsylvania’s Campus at 34th and Walnut Streets Tuesday morning. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Over the summer, the University of Pennsylvania launched the Campus Iconography Group (CIG), a committee that will develop processes to address complaints of problematic public art on campus, and to consider what is not represented in the campus art collection.

The acquisition of Brick House predates the creation of the CIG. Mitchell, who serves as co-chair, said the group will nevertheless be considering how to best use the sculpture as an educational tool.

“We are making sure we are aware of our commitment to art, to historical representation, and that we are able to think deeply and carefully with one another about difficult issues,” she said.

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