Last week, Brooklyn-based artist Simone Leigh was awarded the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize. “A lot of people would characterize a moment like this in my career like I’d reached the finish line, but actually it’s the beginning. ‘What will I do with the Hugo Boss award?’ is a more interesting question for me right now,” explained Leigh, who dedicated the honor to collector and philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a friend and mentor who passed away earlier in the year.
During her acceptance speech, Leigh underscored that it’s because of Cooper Cafritz that she understands the responsibility of an award like this. “The reason why I think this way is knowing her for so long and watching her very effective leadership.”
Cooper Cafritz was a civil rights activist, educator, and patron of the arts who amassed one of the largest private collections of African-American art in the country. When she died she left hundreds of artworks to both the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based institution she co-founded in 1974, a few years after she received her law degree from George Washington University.
“When I asked her why she went to law school, because it didn’t really seem to be relevant to anything she did afterwards,” Leigh said after the event, “she said, ‘Well, I thought when the revolution was over there would need to be someone to do the negotiating.’ That’s an example of her thought process. She had a lot of wealth and cultural capital and she was always very conscious and careful of how she was using it and what she was using it for.”
The award comes with both a $100,000 check and an exhibition at the Guggenheim. The prize jury praised Leigh for both her innovative use of ceramics and her sustained mentorship of young female artists.
“I get as much out of helping younger artists as they do from me,” says Leigh. “I don’t think this way of working is very unusual but I notice people keep on talking about it.” Besides, “I do think that it’s more interesting when you pass through a gate to hold a door open than it is to slam it behind you, and I think ultimately more effective.”
Leigh’s best known for her ceramic busts — she’ll have a big one, called Brick House, on the High Line, starting this coming April — but she works in video, installation, and social practice art as well. Projects like the Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014) a community-based art commission for Creative Time and The Waiting Room (2016) an exhibition at the New Museum in particular were motivated to underscore long-standing strategies of self-determination in the African diaspora. “I was trying to expose the different ways black people and black women in particular take care of each other and others.”