Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room
by Jessica Karuhanga
Are you mad?
Harness this feeling.
How do we channel madness when we find ourselves continually rooted in being undone? Our bodies hold ineffable energies that remain unperceivable to those existing outside their fleshy contours. This cipher precedes language and its translation deep within the wells of un-mappable geographies. These wells harbour safety until we are awash in death and she leaves us rising like smoke diffused and unnamed. So we say her name. We repeat these utterances like mantras. In this madness we merge and dance furiously. I missed the incessant dancing on September 1, 2016. However, instinctively, I felt this vision was a continuous unfolding and each day there awaited a new experience.
Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room – an expansion of her socially engaged project Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014) – is an undeniable affirmation of her investment in centralizing subjectivities of Black women and femmes. Leigh foregrounds these bodies within a legacy of community-organized healthcare practices necessitated by the systemic deferral of Black vulnerability and livelihood. The Waiting Room inaugurates a residency and exhibition series at the New Museum that is committed to a dialectic exchange between the public and the institution focused on art and social justice. The exhibition is comprised of a series of performances, lectures and care sessions led and enacted by artists and educators from within Leigh’s community. Most of these workshops, which occurred outside the museum’s standard hours, were free to the public. Leigh’s program reveals Black women to be unwavering despite of and in defiance of a violent history of dispossession and medicalization. Let us recall the death of Esmin Green, a catalyst for Leigh’s vision, who was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric ward in Brooklyn where she waited for 24 hours to receive care that would never reach her before her untimely death. She collapsed in a chair in the waiting room. Her body, even in death, lay waiting. “I don’t want to wait in vain for your love,”1 becomes a riff that summons deeper sensibilities
On a Saturday morning in mid-September I attended a session in The Waiting Room. I was greeted at the entrance of the New Museum by a woman checking off the names of those who had signed up to participate in a guided meditation for Black Lives Matter. In the foyer a receptionist, wearing a brightly coloured hat, smiled while singing a cappella. She summoned me with her voice and ushered me toward an elevator leading to the fifth floor. I ascended to The Waiting Room with several strangers. I reflected on what possible sets of motions had drawn us all here to this apex. Many of us were not merely visitors to the site but only in town for a sojourn, which seemed noteworthy.
The elevator doors parted. I entered a dimly lit room to face an intricately etched paper curtain. This partition insisted our bodies move in one of two directions. I intuitively followed the scents of lavender and hibiscus toward the apothecary, which was sanctioned off from the rest of the installation space by a pristine glass wall. Before this room stood a table covered with stacks of mint-hued newsprint weighted down by large stones. I took a paper, but I suspended reading it to allow for distance after witnessing. In the apothecary baskets on floor were filled to the brim with sage. White walls were lined with rows of white shelves holding meticulously placed jars. They were filled with cinnamon, chamomile and flower petals. The mélange of scents tethered me to the ground while I sipped on tea offerings. The waiting room was buttressed with heaps of white sandbags reaching my hips. These piles enveloped the central space, which is strewn with black cushions, and they soften the distilled realities of the institutional framework through which we were temporarily passing. A group of thirty-something people was about to sit together through a mettabhavana (loving-kindness) meditation led by Mona Chopra. Several candles rested flush with the wall behind her, forming an altar that suggests the residue of something that transpired before our emergence. Chopra guided us through intention and we endeavoured to be in our bodies despite all mental wanderings and reflexes. I wondered if I was able to emit warmth toward my tormentors. I repeated their names in addition to individuals I barely know. I conjured their images. This task is difficult. I resigned myself to thinking about the cupcakes I was going to eat later with my friend. I returned to this site in my body. I shifted my weight trying to remain centred. I was not certain if I was doing things right. I tried to dispel my skepticism. This task was difficult as I am rooted in being undone with no solace in sight.
Days later, on my way home, leafing through mint-hued newsprint, I find myself moved to tears. The intricacies reveal a fragility I know, and yet I do not have the capacity to contend with the notion that my teachers and maternal figures may leave me. Or that I too will leave this place. So I hold on to them, pulling them out of splits into a form that is beyond human. Sometimes we remain unperceivable even while our tormentors gaze and graze upon our skins. Sometimes we revel within and beyond the frame.