Holding Space and Holding Court
Located in a quiet alcove away from the university’s major thoroughfares stands Sentinel IV, a ten-foot bronze sculpture in the elongated form of an African American woman with a spoon-shaped crown. Surrounded by benches and greenery in the renovated courtyard in front of the Anna Hiss Gymnasium, the enigmatic sculpture beckons passersby to stop for a moment of reflection.
Sentinel IV is the most recent project from Landmarks, the university’s award-wining public art program. In an essay published on the Landmarks Public Art website, Curatorial Contributor Stephanie Sparling Williams shares her thoughts on how this newly installed sculpture exudes a powerful presence on campus.
“Despite its featureless façade, Sentinel IV seems to capture and hold vision itself in its deep hollow,” Sparling Williams notes in her essay. “The anthropomorphic figure at once holds space and holds court, to use two vernacular concepts in tension—to make space/to take up space.”
Created by Simone Leigh, a celebrated New York-based artist, the sculpture is modeled after a Zulu ceremonial spoon, a tool that conveys cultural status and symbolizes women’s labor. By infusing everyday objects into her works, Leigh creates pieces that speak to the collective histories of Black women.
Sentinel IV is the university’s first purchase of work of public art by an African American woman artist, and the first to be permanently displayed on UT Austin’s campus. The acquisition is part of the program’s five-year Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Plan (DEIA), which aims to meet its goal of strenghtening curatorial practices to develop a more inclusive environment.
“When we started doing this work, we heard repeatedly from Black communities that they are tired of proclamations about future intentions; they wanted to see action,” says Landmarks Founding Director and Curator Andrée Bober. “This opened the door to an examination of our program, our work and the context.”
Bober and her team soon hired an outside consultant Eboné Bishop, founder and CEO of Evolv, an advisory firm that helps organizations strengthen their diversity, equity and inclusion planning.
“She helped us think through some hard issues,” Bober says. “We began by defining exactly what we mean when we talk about DEIA, and we learned is that it can be different things to different people.”
Given the university’s storied history of racial and gender exclusion, Bober knew her team had to be intentional about the placement of artwork. While discussing these efforts with Ted Gordon, vice provost for diversity, he suggested she attend one of his Racial Geography Tours to get a more nuanced overview of the university’s historical landscape.
“I want to acknowledge Dr. Ted Gordon for helping me become more aware of gender history on campus,” Bober says. “After taking the tour, I began to think about the Anna Hiss Gym—UT’s first women’s gym—and how it is a significant location for a woman artist to be celebrated. I also want to recognize former Vice President and Provost Maurie McInnis, who was excited about Simone’s work and made it possible to put the acquisition and renovation project in motion.”
Bober also credits Sparling Williams for the thorough research she put into the sculpture’s location, which included an analysis of the artist, explorations into the campus’s history and conversations with students and members of the Precursors.
“Tremendous thought was given to the location and the landscape design,” Bober says. “This is the only piece in our collection where an entire landscape was designed around the art. The idea was to create a garden around this sculpture to invite reflection, and to provide a place for contemplation.”
The overall goal, Bober notes, is to connect anyone on campus to art outside of a gallery setting—thus opening a threshold for further explorations and discovery.
“Every time someone walks by this piece, they might ask, ‘Why is this here? Why does it matter?'” Bober says. “If they take that first step to discover the answers, it might open the door for a whole lifetime of engagement with the arts. More than anything, I want people who come to UT to feel they belong here and are welcome. I think this piece signals that message.”
For more reflections on Sentinel IV, read a Q&A with Stephanie Sparling Williams, Landmarks’ curatorial contributor and associate curator at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.