Zendaya and Simone Leigh Are Going Beyond Beauty
In conversation with Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, Artists Simone Leigh and Zendaya come together to create a new vision of black womanhood. Photographed by Ryan McGinley.
Dress by LOUIS VUITTON, necklace by TIFFANY & CO.
The artist Simone Leigh's work is build upon black female subjectivity. Throughout her practice, these ideas have manifested themselves in a wide variety of mediums and materials: There are her well-known sculptures and ceramics, as well as her social participatory work such as 2016's The Waiting Room, which mimics the historic Free People's Medical Clinic of the Black Panther Party, and provided public and private health care sessions on the fifth floor of the New Museum. Now, GARAGE has paired Leigh with the actress and performer Zendaya to bring her work to life in a different way. Taking inspiration from Brick House, Leigh's 16-foot-tall sculpture currently on display at New York City's High Line, as well as her ongoing Cupboard series, Zendaya both wears Leigh's work and becomes her women. The 23-year-old actress, who's interested in expanding the canon of characters that young black women are allowed to play in Hollywood, fits perfectly within the larger narrative of Leigh's work. Together, they take up space and demand to be seen and heard. This portfolio of images, photographed by Ryan McGinley, is the result of their collaboration, a new vision of black womanhood within the pages of a fashion magazine. We also brought Leigh and Zendaya together with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, to have a frank conversation about creativity and the importance of uplifting the stories of people of color. - Laia Garcia-Furtado
Thelma Golden: I’m thrilled to be talking to both of you. Where I want to start is to ask both of you to talk about your expectations, hopes, and desires for this collaboration.
Simone Leigh: I kept on thinking about [Isamu] Noguchi and Martha Graham and the way he created sculpture for her, which has been interesting to me for a while. I’ve been making different kinds of apparatus with my long-term collaborator Aimee Meredith Cox, and I’ve been thinking about this kind of collaboration with another artist where the sculpture will augment her body or can be happening adjacent to her body, but it was important for me in this shoot for the sculpture not to become backdrop or decoration. Also, I was very inspired by the role I feel like Zendaya has in our world right now, which is so necessary.
Zendaya: When the opportunity presented itself, I was obviously extremely excited. Even though we do art in different forms, there’s so much inspiration that could be gathered just by meeting someone and seeing their art, and seeing their work, and being able to be a small part of it. I don’t think I had any expectations, I just felt like it was going to be inspiring and refreshing. I don’t think I know very many people who do what she does, so meeting Simone and seeing her work and feeling like I was in some way becoming a part of her creation was magical and special. I felt very moved by it, and excited to be a part of something that was a different art form from my own, learn a little bit, step back, and just kind of be a part of what she sees for her pieces. I’d never really done anything like that before.
TG: Both of you—Zendaya in the roles that you have picked and, as Simone said, the role that you occupy in the world; and Simone, of course, in your path as an artist—clearly get a lot of inspiration from really inhabiting a sense of what the possibility of roles for women are and can be. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Z: I’m an actress, so I have this gift of being able to tell people’s stories and to take on people’s pain and happiness and whatever it is they go through, so that it can be reflected, and somebody in the world can see themselves within these characters that I’m able to play. They can think, “Oh my gosh, I’m not the only one in the world that is feeling this.” It makes you feel less lonely. I think that that’s something really, really special, something that I’ve really just become more in tune with for Euphoria . To me, the role had so many layers and so much depth and so many things for me to play with. There was a character that, I think, never comes around for anybody, especially not a woman. You know what I’m saying? Definitely not a black woman. I think that in itself was exciting for me to take on.
TG: Simone, your important and significant body of work has completely shifted the idea of what it means to create the image of women, of black women, in the long history of sculptural form. Can you talk about the inspiration for that, and perhaps how you imagine and create in a way that’s so informed by power and beauty?
SL: I entered the art world at a time that it was not into beauty. It was interesting. I think that my work in art began with discovering a really beautiful Nigerian water pot, that was made by Ladi Kwali. Then, because I had just a philosophy and cultural studies background, I started to think about the means of production, the knowledge, everything that happens around that object. Typically with water pots, the labor is done by anonymous, mostly black women in Africa. It set me on this journey of thinking about how much labor has been accomplished, how many countries, cities, hospitals are fueled by the labor of black women, and at the same time, they’re denigrated. I feel very lucky to be in a position to represent the strength and beauty of women. What’s been difficult is walking this line where I don’t want to essentialize the black femme experience. That’s one of the reasons why Zendaya’s work is really exciting, because it’s so atypical of a role that would be given to a young black woman.
TG: Simone, you have been exemplary, singular in the way in which you have centered the intellectual labor of black women thinkers in the world. Can you talk about some of those important points of inspiration for you within the essential canon of intellectual thought of black women in the 21st century?
SL: Thank you. I realized at a certain point, as I was trying to make better work and push the work further, that I was relying more and more on the scholarship of black women intellectuals, and also noticing that they, as well, were laboring anonymously. People in the academy may not feel that way, but in general I was noticing, especially in art, a complete absence of knowledge of these large bodies of work that are now into their third or fourth generation. If you think about the Nardal sisters, who did a lot of the work to create Negritude in the ’30s in Paris, it’s really been years and years of work. It started with wanting to cultivate an audience for people who could understand the symbols and signs in my work more. It also started as just a desire to keep up with cultural studies as more and more work was being done, to understand really what’s happened to us over the last 400 years.
I started to feel really supported by some of these ideas, like Saidiya Hartman’s idea of “critical fabulation.” It’s something that really is helpful for me every day that I’m making artwork. Christina Sharpe has been really impactful in my life, and many of my colleagues as well. I was really delighted and thrilled. I really feel like the most important thing I’ve done in my career was the Loophole of Retreat conference [Leigh’s 2018 Hugo Boss Prize show at the Guggenheim], where those women were gathered, and also where Annette Richter, the great-great-granddaughter of the founder of the United Order of Tents, was able to come and tell her story. I’ve been really happy about creating an audience and being a part of making this history more visible.
TG: We are grateful to you for that, because that day was important for us all, and I think it’s resonated in being able to lift up these voices. Zendaya, if you could pick any person to portray, is there a role that you absolutely would be thrilled to have the opportunity to play?
Z: I don’t know. People often ask that, and I think the beauty of being an actor is to be able to literally be anybody. At this point, I want to look for things that are going to continue to push me in different ways, whether it’s being pushed in a comedic way, whether it’s being pushed in a dramatic way. I just want to continue to expand myself and see what I can be capable of and who I can transform into. It’s scary and it’s hard and it’s terrifying, and that, I think, is the beauty in all of it—just kind of being a little bit terrified and getting to the other side. I want to continue to be put outside of my comfort zone, because comfort is the enemy of progress.
TG: It seems that what you are saying is that you are embracing all possibility, and you’re also leaning into risk and taking chances in relation to your creativity. That’s something you share with Simone, who I’ve had the pleasure of watching since the time she was an artist in residence here at the Studio Museum. She has always been fearless in her ability to both imagine and execute her work through the full extent of possibility. I would say that’s a space that you both have occupied as artists, that manifests in the work that is out in the world representing both of you.
Z: I think, just as someone who admires art, I feel like I don’t even know if I’m creative enough. I’m an actor, so I get to make things come to life that are already on paper. I can execute it well, but the freedom of allowing yourself to be creative, and then executing it, is fearless. That act alone, that fearlessness of putting your art out there is just so scary. For me, I can hide behind the fact that I’m playing a character. I’m playing someone else. Somebody else wrote this. It’s different, but that is, I think, another level of vulnerability.
TG: Zendaya, you grew up in Oakland, and Simone, you are from Chicago. Can you talk about the way those particular places and, more generally, your sense of community informs your work?
Z: I think there’s so much culture and there’s so much history in Oakland. Many of my aunties were Black Panthers, so they held meetings in the house that I grew up in. Just knowing the history, being aware of it, being taught it, it’s special. I think it’s something that people who are from Oakland or grow up in Oakland and have those roots and those histories, it’s a thing that you carry with you. I’m lucky to have that, and to have that knowledge that has been given to me. It’s just a very special place. It’s gone through a lot of changes. A huge issue right now in my hometown is gentrification and how that’s affecting everything. When I go back, I barely recognize where I used to live; the community and the people aren’t there anymore. I try my best, and I want to continue to have a connection to Oakland and to my peers in Oakland, many of whom are activists and are really on the ground doing work. I think, for me, my job as someone from there is to give back to my community, but also to uplift my peers who are there. I personally think that being from Oakland is cool. You know what I mean? You just have a cool thing about you because you’re from this town.
SL: I grew up in the South Side of Chicago, and Chicago is incredibly segregated. I don’t think people can even imagine how segregated Chicago is. Maybe it’s changed a little bit, but not much. I was in what’s called a white-flight neighborhood. It was similar to the neighborhood depicted in Gloria Naylor’s book Linden Hills. I was so happy when that book came out, to sort of see myself for the first time. We were really the beginning of the first black, middle class, African migration in Chicago. The world had broken open. People were reinventing themselves left and right on our block. There were people who became Buddhists, people who became Muslims. There were a lot of black Jews in Chicago. There was also already many, many years of activism, like Operation PUSH. Everyone was black—the nurses, the teachers, the doctors, the bankers. Everyone was black, so I grew up feeling like my blackness didn’t predetermine anything about me. It was very good for my self-esteem. I still feel lucky that I grew up in that crucible.
"I think that recently as my work has become a lot more visible, I've been more aware of the responsibility that comes with success."
TG: Sounds like you were both deeply, creatively nurtured. You both have mentioned activism and those of us who witness your work sort of understand that idea of activism is important to both of you. Can you define a little of the space of how you define your own activism through your work and in your life? I know that’s big. You can take it any way you want to.
Z: It’s a big question. I go back and forth with the word “activist” because sometimes I don’t feel like I deserve the title. Activists are people who do the work every day, and it’s their life. I feel like I am a platform, a help, a tool, or a resource. I really struggle with the term activist because I just don’t feel like I deserve it, to be honest. I come from two parents who are educated, and who are teachers and who have constantly given. My mom, for example, has given in her entire life and career—all she did as a teacher was give and give and give. To me, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to do right by people. You’re supposed to help people when you can. You’re supposed to uplift people when you can. Through my work, I’m just allowing people’s stories to be told. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to be in a position where I can open doors for people who look like me—and for people who don’t look like me.
For example, I was on a panel with Ava DuVernay where she was talking about her work and what she’s able to do. I hope to be in a position where I can open those doors, because [the problem] is not a lack of talent, it’s a lack of opportunity. We know that the talent is there in our community and within our people. It’s just the lack of opportunity to be able to even get through the door. To me, that’s not anything but doing the right thing. You know what I mean? To me, that’s just what you’re supposed to do. I want to let my art speak for itself, and continue to be and do projects and things that I love. I think sometimes the point of having a platform at all, to have all these people and followers, it’s just to really step off of it and allow other people to use it. I’ve been finding more of my purpose in that way, because I feel like everything you do, especially when it comes to this industry, you have to have a purpose, and you have to have a reason for why you’re doing it, or else you just go crazy.
SL: I really second everything that Zendaya is saying. I’m also very shy about describing myself as an activist. I have so many friends and colleagues that have developed their lives at Center for Constitutional Rights and places like this. I feel uncomfortable sometimes with the term. I do feel a sense of personal responsibility. The way it relates to my work is, at a certain point, I realized that I would have to work in an auto-ethnographic way, meaning doing the research that I would need to make the work. There’s a long tradition of this. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet had to do it, and Zora Neale Hurston had to do it—become both the anthropologist and the novelist and the poet. Katherine Dunham had to do it. She got a master’s in anthropology and wrote several books and did her fieldwork in Haiti before she created the first or the largest, I don’t know, African-American modern dance.
Recently, I saw the Toni Morrison film The Pieces I Am. I was surprised I didn’t know about the history where she decided to start publishing other black authors, like Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara; that she published a lot of them for the first time. It also reminds me of you, Thelma, where you’re building the museum and being the director of the museum at the same time. This is how we do.
“I want to just continue to explore whatever facet of my abilities that I can. I want to be pushed. I want to continue to push outside of my comfort zone because comfort is the enemy of progress”
TG: Thank you, Simone. I’m glad you brought that up about Toni Morrison, because I was lucky to know that history of her through my career, and it was a great inspiration, the idea of how you create space for people. I think it’s an indication of your humility that you don’t claim the term “activist,” but I think you both are conscious about the way you work, and how your work lives in the world. Is there anything you want to ask each other?
Z: You know how I was just saying everything has to be done, or you have to do things with purpose? What do you feel like, with your art and what you create, what do you feel like is your purpose? What do you hope that the world or that people are able to connect with or take from your work? What do you feel like that impact is, or what do you want that impact to be?
TG: That’s a good one.
SL: I think that recently as my work has become a lot more visible, and also because of my mentors like Thelma and Peggy Cooper Cafritz in D.C., I’ve been more aware of the responsibility that comes with success. I’ve tried to make space for other artists whenever I can and shine a light on other artists and intellectuals when I can. There’s the problem of describing anything as being a first, because it erases all the work that people have already done. I do feel a great sense of responsibility, and it’s a pure pleasure. It doesn’t feel oppressive to me at all. I feel like this is the work that I’m here to do. As things go forward, I feel more and more like I’ve found my place, which is really lovely for me, because I was always a very awkward black woman. I’m really happy that I have some usefulness and something to contribute.
Z: That’s beautiful.
SL: My question for you, Zendaya, is when you realize the responsibilities of representation, and the expectations that especially women of color may bring to what they feel like you could do, or how you might be able to help or push us forward, how do you manage that, not becoming overwhelming and not stifling your creativity?
Z: Being that I am still 22, it’s something that I’m navigating and I’m figuring out as I go, because, again, I want to be aware. I want to be an advocate, and I want to be a change-maker. I want to be part of the active change that I want to see. But I also have steps that I have to take in order to make those things happen as well. I have to get to a place where I can make those changes happen. It’s kind of one of those things where, internally, I want everything to happen all at once and happen fast. I have to be okay with taking the steps to get there, which is hard for anyone, especially since I’m a Virgo, to be honest with you. I want it done. I want the change. I want to be able to do this. It doesn’t necessarily happen that quickly, and I can’t also allow that to stop me from being creative.
I just allow myself a little bit of space. I think many young people my age feel like there’s almost so much that we need to fix right now that it can be overwhelming. I think there’s a certain layer of heaviness to that. It can kind of feel hopeless, like “Oh my God, everything seems wrong right now.” There’s so much work that has to be done, and my generation is having to do that work. I’m trying to find the balance between being able, at every opportunity I can, to open those doors and start the conversations, and also do the work from the inside. It’s about being able to get into those rooms and start making those changes from the inside, and opening up those conversations, because that’s what needs to be done. But it’s also about not letting this feeling of wanting to fix everything all the time and make everything better just weigh on me too much to where I can’t enjoy anything. You know what I mean? That’s kind of the balance that I’m honestly still trying to navigate and figure out, because it’s hard.
TG: I have no doubt, and I’m sure Simone agrees, that you will do it.
Hair Marty Harper at The Wall Group, Makeup Raisa Flowers, Manicure Isadora Rios at MAM, Set Designer Robert Sumrell at Walter Schupfer, Movement Director Luisa Opalesky, Tailor Laura Cortese at Christy Rilling Studio, 1st Photo Assistant Jordan Strong, Photographers Assistants Chad Crews, Nate Margoli, and Lance Charles, Digital Tech Travis Drennen, Fashion Assistant Jared Ellner, Hair Assistant Anthony Perez, Makeup Assistant Keyanna Morrison, Set Design Assistants Andre Pagan, Hue Hallums, Claudette Martinez, Alberto Torres, John Ruiz, Mauro Baicco, Dietrich Teschner, Morgan Zilm, and Sal Lombardo, Production One Thirty-Eight Productions, Post Production Two Three Two