II. Hand To Flame
Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich’s Conspiracy
By Yasmina Price
An incantation of multiple architectures of the self for black women, Conspiracy (2022) is a film by artists Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. This tribute to the manual labors of creation, which closes with a gesture of contained black feminist arson, forms a contact zone between their respective practices of sculpture and filmmaking. The wandering hypnosis of Hunt-Ehrlich’s gorgeous black and white cinematography ritualizes the assertive elegance of Leigh’s craftsmanship of clay and stone. While the film is part of the ensemble of Leigh’s 2022 Venice Biennale U.S. Pavilion, it is also a striking piece on its own. This shared composition is directed by a mesmerizing attentiveness to the haptics of sculptural labor. Conspiracy opens with a tray of scattered sculpting tools on a wooden table. An overhead shot pans smoothly across the table to pause above a pottery wheel, on top of which lies a circular slab of clay. Two hands are shown breaking off chunks of clay—thick cylinders pressed and molded to the base—in a captivating real-time documentation of the process of shaping the material into a cylindrical object.
Hunt-Ehrlich and Leigh’s film performs an enchanting re-citation of Hands of Inge (1962), a 16mm black and white documentary about the artist Ruth Inge Hardison. An actor and photographer, Hardison was most dedicated to her practice as a sculptor. As one of few black women recognized in this capacity, there is a line of inheritance between her and Leigh’s defiant positionalities within the white norms of the art world. The most direct visual reference is channeled through the stylized choreography of Hands of Inge, in which Hardison’s hands are shown carefully demonstrating a series of tools against a black backdrop. Conspiracy mirrors the earlier work’s first image of the sculptor’s two hands shown in a closeup, fingers extended upwards and pressed together, as we might cover our eyes. Leigh’s hands bend and unbend a thick piece of wire; they playfully oscillate from side to side with a wire clay cutter; one hand holds the perforated rectangle of a clay shredder and brushes it lightly against the other arm; one hand holds up a hammer. The sequential display of the artist’s tools frame her as an artisan and a worker. Rather than glossing over completed pieces, the film inhabits and documents the studio as a place of labor, always amid creation, with Leigh and her assistants navigating it together.
A film so focused on process invites a consideration of its production in intimate and historical terms. Leigh and Hunt-Ehrlich have had a decade-long creative friendship, which makes this film an extension of an ongoing conversation that both also share with a larger constellation of black women cultural workers. There is also a layered significance to the sourcing from Hands of Inge, which is itself an example of a visual assemblage where black women hold each other’s appearances. The earlier documentary was edited by Hortense “Tee” Beveridge, who was the first black woman to be a member of the Local 771 union for motion picture film editors. Hands of Inge was also placed in the collection of Pearl Bowser, a veritable doyenne of black cinema, before being given to the Smithsonian Institution's Center for African American Media Arts. In a single object, and in ways that are not immediately visible on its surface, Conspiracy draws together a long history of black women’s polymorphic practices. These nested references to cultural caretaking and artistic ingenuity are heightened by Lorraine O’Grady’s presence in the film. An extraordinary conceptual and performance artist whose hybrid practices ultimately defy any form of containment, she has also been a mentor to Leigh, and her appearance in the film is the embodiment of continuity among these artists. O’Grady is shown flipping through what might be an exhibition catalogue, with a shelf of plastic-wrapped objects behind her, a temporary home for traveling objects.
Through its sonic composition, the film also assembles a musical and intertextual collage. The first sounds are “Angel Chile,” from Jeanne Lee’s album, Conspiracy (1975), which also inspired the title. In this song, Lee’s avant-garde jazz is expressed through a mixture of what almost sounds like stifled laughter, staccato breathing, crescendos of hypnotic wailing, and precisely softened screeching. Accompanied by other songs from the album, the film’s narration features excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse (1938) and Robert Farris Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit (1983). The first of these is a text in which the anthropologist, and once peerlessly prolific chronicler of African American culture, documented her participatory experiences of voodoo in both Haiti and Jamaica.
Leigh’s explorations of “Sovereignty”—the title of the Venice Pavilion which houses the film—might be compared with how Hurston worked, sui generis, to innovate autonomous ethnographic methods. Within her larger oeuvre of attending to and cataloguing black folklore, Hurston’s Tell My Horse is a reflective travelogue which addresses the legacies of colonialism on both Caribbean islands, U.S. imperialism in Haiti, the stratifications of class antagonism, and anti-blackness coded into colorism and mulatto populations, popular memory and spiritual practices. Hurston’s vivid descriptions in this formal bricolage were dismissed as lacking the rigor of “real” anthropology. This is not dissimilar to the way that black women’s creative practices, in general and especially with more artisanal forms, have been delegitimized as not being “real art,” as can be seen in the example of early institutional dismissals of quilting in the South. These typical exclusions aside, artistic mediums which might be called folkloric are especially valuable as forms of popular memory-making. The specific excerpts drawn from Hurston in the film deal with the bodily preparation for a wedding, describing the processes administered to a young bride by an old woman. The narration describes a sequence of bathing and massaging, using an oil prepared from khus khus, a Jamaican grass. The procreative facet of ritual is magnified in this context, tied to women’s collective labors towards childbearing. The montage which accompanies these narrative fragments, showing Leigh vigorously scrubbing her hands with a brush and washcloth in a bowl of murky water, extends this sense of generative potential beyond the biological.
A sense of diasporic blackness is tracked across Leigh’s and Hunt-Ehrlich’s practices. In this co-directed visual work, Jamaica is evoked with particular importance for the sculptor, as her parents’ origin. Indeed, Last Garment (2022), a sculpture in the pavilion which is rendered in living form by writer and historian Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts in Conspiracy, was based on a postcard titled Mammy’s Last Garment, Jamaica. Captured by photographer C.H.Graves, this 1879 image was shot as a stereogram, a pre-cinematic technology which used two photographs and a device called a stereoscope as a viewing mechanism to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth. The postcard displays two almost identical images, showing a black figure dressed in white, knee-deep in a stream of water, bent over a barely visible piece of white fabric being washed. In the pavilion, the sculptural afterlife of this index of colonial representational violence was placed in a dark reflecting pool, severely bordered in black. Doubled in the reflection, the figure is again multiplied in the film where Rhodes-Pitts is shown posing to mimic the postcard for Leigh’s sculpture. In another instance of a collaborative friendship, she also shapes a material tribute with a likeness of the writer called Sharifa (2022). In an echo of one of the most charming sequences in Hands of Inge—a series of parallel cuts between Hardison’s daughter and her mother’s sculpture of her—two close-ups of Sharifa’s face, first in profile and then head on, are mirrored by the same sequencing of Rhodes-Pitts. This first foray into portraiture for Leigh signals a process of cataloging and perhaps even subversive canonizing.
The space outside Leigh’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn is the site of the cathartic conflagration which closes Conspiracy. A statue which was shown being assembled earlier in the film, palms pressed together on the left side of her face and adorned with a voluminous raffia skirt, is pushed by Leigh and her assistants to the water’s edge, accompanied by only the sound of crashing waves. Leigh leaves and returns with a torch, circling around the figure to ignite the circumference of the skirt. The sounds of the water mingle with the billowing and crackling of the fire, and the camera shifts to a close-up of O’Grady in her majestically two-toned hair and striking earrings, then to one of the assistants, then to Leigh herself, as they patiently watch the effigy burn. In the last minute, after the torso and head have collapsed, all that is left is the smoky exoskeleton of the metal skirt, accompanied by Lee’s vocalizing as the last shreds of material burn away.
The inspiration behind this symbolic blaze is Vaval, the straw mannequin king of Carnival in Martinique, French Guiana, and Guadeloupe who is ceremonially set on fire as a catalyst for religious, social, and political regeneration. In Conspiracy, this background converges with selections from Thompson’s Flash of the Spirit, where the art historian attended to black Atlantic art and the nkisi charms of the Konga. As the image zooms in on a bust wrapped in plastic, a stock narrative voice cites Thompson’s writing on how “In black North America, the last used objects of the dead are also believed to be specially charged with traces of the spirit. One can chart the continuation of this belief from plantation times,” and later, accompanying a shot of two pairs of feet and calves squishing clay, his reference to “Spirit-embodying materials.” These textual excerpts deal with items not necessarily intended to be merely looked at as art objects, but rather used and marked by the passage of time.
Leigh and Hunt-Ehrlich’s shared aesthetic project, in a way that enmeshes with Hurston, is an honoring of black sociality. There is an eroticism to the privileging of touch in Conspiracy, in the sense that evokes an embodied, irrepressible, creative vitality. Opacity, concealment, and disguise are all dynamic traits of Hunt-Ehrlich’s visual language across her other works, and here they are paired beautifully with insights into Leigh’s sculptural practice as part of an ecosystem of collective cultural labor, which precedes the final figures and is never only limited to them. Their collaborative film has a powerfully elemental aspect, which, while it is most carried by earth, is threaded with water and air, and ends in fire. The theatricality of the regenerative burning at the end of their Conspiracy resists the museum logics of forced, sanitized durability and the relegation of objects to the carcerality of glass boxes. Hunt-Ehrlich’s and Leigh’s co-authored enchantment pairs its historically layered tribute to black women’s cultural production across mediums with an allowance for ephemeral impermanence. There is much to hold onto and preserve, but lighting a fire and letting some things burn is not always a loss.
Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich is a filmmaker and artist whose works have screened extensively at museums and festivals around the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Blackstar Film Festival. She was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's “25 New Faces of Independent Cinema” (2020). Hunt-Ehrlich is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Princess Grace Award (2014); a Rema Hort Mann Award (2019); an UNDO Fellowship and Grant; and a Creative Capital Award (2022). She is co-creator of the film Conspiracy (2022), together with Simone Leigh, which premiered at the 59th Venice Biennale.
Simone Leigh is a Chicago-born artist based in New York City. Her practice incorporates sculpture, video, and installation, informed by her ongoing exploration of black female-identified subjectivity. Recent projects and exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial (2019); “The Waiting Room” (2016) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art; and a solo exhibition at the Hammer Museum (2017). “Loophole of Retreat,” a major solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, commemorated Leigh’s achievements as the winner of the Hugo Boss Prize (2018). Leigh was the first artist to be commissioned for the High Line Plinth (New York), where her sculpture Brick House was unveiled in 2019. She is the first black woman to represent the United States at the 59th Venice Biennale, where she was awarded a Golden Lion (2022).
View next: “Interlude: Ruth Inge Hardison and Hands of Inge,” inside Fire Blossoms: A Dossier by Yasmina PriceBack to Fire Blossoms table of contents
Yasmina Price is a writer, programmer, and PhD candidate in the departments of African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. She focuses on anticolonial cinema from the Global South and the work of visual artists across the African continent and diaspora, with a particular interest in the experimental work of women filmmakers. Her recent writing has appeared in Art in America, Aperture, Criterion’s Current, Film Comment, and Film Quarterly.
Fig. 1-4 and 6, Simone Leigh and Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Conspiracy (2022), 16mm film still. Courtesy the artists and Matthew Marks Gallery.
Fig. 5, C.H. Graves, Mammy’s Last Garment (1879), stereoscopic photograph. In the public domain.