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.
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.
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.