Photography by Shulamit Seidler-Feller, courtesy of Creative Time. 2014.

Visual AIDS was founded on the belief that art has a role to play in health, well-being, activism, and aesthetics. Bringing similar threads together, artist Simone Leigh has created the Free People’s Medical Clinic in collaboration with Stuyvesant Mansion as part of Creative Time and Weeksville Heritage Center’s Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn project. It is an immersive and interactive experience that includes various mediums of art, and free services including HIV testing. In the interview below Leigh talks with Ted Kerr about how the Clinic came to be, what it illuminates about Black History, and what she hopes will be the impact once the installation wraps up on October 12.

Visual AIDS: When it comes to healthcare, what can art do?
Simone Leigh: I created the Free People's Medical Clinic to honor the past efforts of the Black Panther Party and to create a space where we would consider the efforts of black nurses in history. These are varied examples of Black self-reliance. So I was channeling both the 70s BBP clinics and art happenings like Womanhouse. Within the clinic there are varied examples of self-care. I edited a magazine called Waiting Room magazine that examines a variety of issues including the historically fraught relationship of blacks to medicine through events like the Tuskegee experiment or the death of a black woman in a Brooklyn waiting room in 2008 after she waited for 24 hours without receiving care. There are also photos from the Muthi Market in Durban South Africa speaking to a larger history of contributions Blacks have made to Medicine through the development of medicinal plants and various technologies. We inhabited a house that was previously occupied by Ancient Song Doula service run by Chanel Portia, a doula and an activist. Her well-women care was the first service to be fully booked. Karen Rose, master Herbalist, is leading two workshops on herbalism as well. Bringing these initiatives together is directly related to my work in sculpture that in general considers the representation of black women as subjects in visual culture.

Visual AIDS: Your installation brings together the past, the present, and I think the future is inferred. Why did you feel it was important to work across time, and what has been one outcome of doing so?
Simone Leigh: The attendants and practitioners wear uniforms based on Civil War nursing costumes in remembrance of the United Order of Tents, a secret society of black nurses who have practiced "service and shelter to people who are unable to care for themselves" continuously since 1867 when the organization was founded by two ex-slaves; Annetta M. Lane and Harriet R. Taylor. The space we occupy was the former home of Josephine English, one of the first black OB/GYNs in New York. Recently I discovered the 60's Television show "Julia" starring Diahann Carroll who plays nurse. A video clip from the series plays on a TV in the waiting room of the clinic.

Visual AIDS: The installation includes free yoga, acupuncture, movement classes, and HIV testing. What did you feel was important about these services?
Simone Leigh: These are all examples of self-care and preventative care that are essential to well being. We offer some of the best care services available in Brooklyn. The clinic is just a display of the work already being done for our community.

Visual AIDS: What has been the response of the local community?
Simone Leigh: The community has responded very positively to the clinic. One reason for that is because they were involved in the planning and implementation of the clinic. We encouraged community involvement at every step. This included the participation of the Black Nurse association, led by Jean Straker, and Joy Mitchell, Head of Nursing of Wykoff hospital, both of whom volunteer at the clinic as well.

Visual AIDS: As part of the installation you have included a soundscape and a magazine. Can you talk about these elements briefly and how you feel they fit into your overall vision?
Simone Leigh: Charles Fembro is a sound artist who has created a piece responding to recorded oral histories of the Tents amongst other sources. Charles is interested in sound as a healing strategy. He has tirelessly performed this brilliant work live each day the clinic has been open. The magazine includes submissions from some of the most important writers and critical theorists of our time. These women are my friends and colleagues. I ask them to share their insight into the issues of the clinic and the legacy of black women nurses. Most of the pieces were written for Waiting Room magazine.

Visual AIDS: The day I visited all of the people working at the clinic were women of color, and the publication includes work by all women of color. This made me think of womanist and black feminist strategies for community care. Was this something you had in mind?
Simone Leigh: Yes and the decision to work in this way was both effortless and challenging. In addition the clinic has provided a meditative yoga class for Desis (for individuals of South Asian descent) led by Mona Chopra, as well as a Movement class for Queer/Trans people led by Niv Acosta. I continue to see the need for safe spaces.

Visual AIDS: What are some impacts you hope for the project, after the outcome is over?
Simone Leigh: I hope that the project has brought awareness and visibility to Black self-reliance. I hope that many are introduced to new strategies for maintaining their health and well being. I'm delighted that over 100 people will receive acupuncture from Julia Bennett (she has already treated more than 80 in the first two weeks), who I consider to be one of the most important Doctors/Healers in our community. I hope that the clinic has bolstered the already strong Ancient Song Doula Service, that will continue after the clinic has closed. In general I wanted the clinic to not only be consciousness raising, but also to create community and form new alliances.

Free People’s Medical Clinic
Simone Leigh in collaboration with Stuyvesant Mansion
Part of funkgodjazz&medicine Black Radical Brooklyn presented by Creative Time and Weeksville Heritage Center
Until October 12
Friday, Saturday, Sunday 12 to 6pm
375 Stuyvesant Avenue (near Decatur Street)
Click here to learn more about the clinic, including the schedule for upcoming events

Simone Leigh engages in an object-based, sculptural exploration of female African American subjectivity, informed by ancient African and African American object-making. With work that is at once highly abstracted and grounded in such timeless recognizable objects as the pottery jar or cowrie shell, Leigh challenges the boundaries between art and craft, and past and present, and her ceramic objects simultaneously evoke archaic and futuristic forms. Her art-making process is infused with the female history of object-making, yielding installations that simultaneously convey a sense of timeless drama and the intensity of her own subjective struggles. Leigh was the subject of a one-person exhibition at The Kitchen, New York, and has shown her work at the Sculpture Center, Queens, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, among many other venues. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as at Hunter College and the Henry Street Settlement, all in New York City. In 2011 Leigh was the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant for Sculptors and in 2012 received the Creative Capital Grant for Visual Arts. Leigh lives and works in Brooklyn.