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Q&A: Landmarks’ curatorial contributor reflects on ‘Sentinel IV’

Stephanie Sparling Williams portrait
Stephanie Sparling Williams is a Black feminist theorist and associate curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. She serves as a curatorial contributor for Landmarks, UT Austin's public art program.

Just in time for the unveiling celebration of UT Austin’s recent acquisition, Sentinel IV, we caught up with Landmarks’ curatorial contributor Stephanie Sparling Williams to learn more about the 10-foot bronze sculpture located at the renovated Anna Hiss Gymnasium courtyard.

Created by the celebrated New York-based artist Simone Leigh, Sentinel IV honors Black femininity while also investigating historical and intersecting ideas of race, beauty and the association of Black women’s bodies with work. The sculpture is the university’s first purchase of work of public art by an African American woman artist.

Read on to learn more about Sentinel IV and its ability to spark conversations that transcend academic disciplines and political ideologies. Sparling Williams will also join the artist at the virtual unveiling event happening on Thursday, July 15 at 4:30 p.m. CST. Go here to RSVP.

You have cited Simone Leigh as one of the greatest artists working in this moment. What draws you to her work?

Beyond a powerful and unapologetic focus on Black women, as a scholar and curator, I am also drawn to Leigh’s deeply thoughtful practice, which is driven by incisive research and smart phenomenological self-reflexivity.

Sentinel IV Photo One
Photo, courtesy of Landmarks, by Paul Bardagjy

When you first looked at the sculpture, what thoughts ran through your mind?

I first encountered Sentinel IV at the New Museum in New York City—it was installed in the devastating and beautiful “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” an exhibition conceived by the late Okwui Enwezor. The title of the sculpture suggests a kind of witness bearing or guardianship, and that is certainly evoked in its placement alongside works like Kerry James Marshall’s Souvenir II, a melancholy painting featuring the commemorative portraits of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senator Robert F. Kennedy and others lost to the struggle for Civil Rights. Even more strongly, though, I felt myself interpellated by Sentinel IV. That is to say, I felt called out to—seen.

Sentinel IV campus photo
Phot, courtesy of Landmarks, by Christina Murrey

What conversations do you hope this sculpture will spark on the UT Austin campus?

Art in public spaces is exciting because the possibilities for encounter and engagement increase exponentially from more traditional art spaces. My hope is that the communities at UT Austin will recognize Sentinel IV for the sculptural masterwork that it is. Too often, the work of Black artists is only taken up in service of social justice politics and inserted into conversations or contexts that are unrelated, or left uncomplicated. While a work that centers Black femininity is certainly ripe for a range of conversations across campus, my hope is for expansive dialogue that recognizes that Sentinel IV is not site specific. Meaning, it was not made with UT Austin, its campus, or specific climate in mind.

Importantly, Leigh is a master sculptor, a master conceptualist, and this piece is a dense nod to so many cultural and intellectual traditions. UT Austin has scored a rare gem, and it will be an epic missed opportunity if classes do not flock to this work—art and art history, of course, but also cultural studies, African diaspora studies, anthropology, history and English, to acknowledge just a few. This is really the significance of Sentinel IV on a university campus; it is positioned well for teaching.

What does it mean to you, personally, to serve as the curatorial contributor for UT’s first sculpture created by a Black woman artist?

It was an honor to think deeply with an institution about an artist like Simone Leigh. In a moment filled with such uncertainty, this project offered a magical space for study, reflection and sharing in the spirit of the womanists and Black feminists who came before me. As a curator at another academic art institution, I have had the privilege to witness firsthand the transformative power of art in spaces of higher education. Opening a window onto the work and interpreting Sentinel IV for wider audiences is something I took very seriously.

Finally, I will just say that in a liberated world, public art made by racially and culturally diverse artists is the backdrop to our everyday lives, the very air we breathe. In manifesting that world, I hope Leigh’s work is one of many more at UT Austin and beyond.

Photo of Sentinel IV by Christina Murrey
Photo, courtesy of Landmarks, by Christina Murrey

In your essay about the sculpture, you stated that it holds space and holds court. Could you please elaborate more on this? 

These are two vernacular affirmations that are both about radical presence in their different connotations. To hold space is to show up fully for another in a way that centers their needs and to hold court is to show up for and as one’s self, to take up space, to be admired. Sentinel IV does all of the above.