The corner of 34th and Walnut streets is newly adorned with a large sculpture of a Black woman’s head atop a round structure that suggests a skirt or building.
The sculpture, titled 'Brick House,' was created by acclaimed artist Simone Leigh. Cast in bronze and standing 16-feet tall, the piece features cowrie shells on the woman’s braids which symbolize wealth, femininity, and the African slave trade in which the shells were used as currency, according to Penn Today. Penn President Amy Gutmann told Penn Today that the sculpture’s installation aligns with the University's commitment to confront issues of racial justice.
“Ms. Leigh’s sculpture brings a striking presence of strength, grace, and beauty — along with an ineffable sense of mystery and resilience — to a central crossroad of Penn’s campus,” Gutmann said. “Its enthralling presence of Black beauty with artistic references to the African diaspora will draw the attention of everyone walking or driving past one of the most travelled corners in West Philadelphia.”
The sculpture is a gift from 1987 Penn graduate Glenn Fuhrman, who also earned an MBA degree from The Wharton School the following year, and 1995 Penn graduate Amanda Fuhrman. They advocated for the sculpture's placement on Penn's campus after learning that Leigh hoped to display her artwork on a college campus.
“We first encountered Simone’s work in 2016 and immediately felt an almost visceral sense of both its historical resonance and incredible connection to our contemporary reality,” Amanda Fuhrman told Penn Today.
Leigh completed an internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, which piqued her interest in the African diaspora that is reflected in Brick House, Penn Today reported.
“I operate in an auto-ethnographic way, in which I research African and diaspora art objects, material culture and philosophies," Leigh told Penn Today. "Often my work is sparked by underlining texts from Black feminist thinkers. ‘Brick House’ is not a portrait. It brings disparate forms together in a way that collapses time. I would describe this way of building sculpture as ‘critical fabulation.’”
The sculpture is the first large-scale sculpture in Leigh’s Anatomy of Architecture series that merges human form with diverse architectural elements.
“Brick House is an enthralling and powerful piece by one of the most consequential artists of our time,” Dean of the Weitzman School Frederick Steiner told Penn Today. “At a time of expanding awareness of the unique experience of Black people, this symbol of strong Black femininity is a striking and timely addition to our shared landscape.”
Black Lives Matter protests peaked this summer after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Minn. who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd was just one of many Black Americans who have fallen victim to police killings. Two Philadelphia police officers shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, on Oct. 26, prompting protests near Penn's campus and throughout West Philadelphia.