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How do bees feed together and survive food insecurity? Trophallaxis. Trophallaxis is the biological exchange of chemicals from one organism to another for feeding, communication, and immunity. Labor, protection, and morbidity are part of this term, as they affect both larvae and adult-to-adult feeding.

The Simone Leigh work bearing the namesake of this principle, trophallaxis, is a part of sustained investigations of chandelier-like work and the idea of breasts as vessels: Emperor Jones (2009), Queen Bee (2008 – 2012), Kool-Aid (2012), You Don’t Know Where Her Mouth Has Been (2012), and Invisible Manish (2015) are examples of this type. The chandelier mount displays the breasts from above, where the viewers' experience is from below, an infant’s view, revering them as a source of life and nourishment, or perhaps, showcasing them as receptacles or spectacles. This view both glorifies them and bears the memory of the display of Black women’s bodies, like the history and legacy of Sarah Baartman, an enslaved African woman who was taken to Europe in the nineteenth century to have her body put on display in freak show, carnival, and human curiosity attractions. 

Trophallaxis focuses on the breast as a site of labor. In that, there is the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort, familiar and unfamiliar: the cracking nipples and boot prints showcase bodily violence and the physical impact of breastfeeding. Fecund breasts with gold-plated areoles and nipples, constructed from terracotta, porcelain, antennae, and epoxy, suspending from the ceiling. Leigh combines centuries-old materials like terracotta (some with boot prints and veins) and porcelain with gold-plated areolae (some cracked) and antennae. The gold-plated areolae symbolize breastmilk as liquid gold, a bodily currency, and their metallic luster exudes futurity. The spiked antennae juxtapose the idea of an invisible connection in the digital sense. The epoxy and antennae bear to mind the ingenuity and vernacular practice of TV and radio users who affix aluminum foil and other contraptions for the purpose of a clearer and crisper connection. These antennae form a jutting, protective exterior that is militaristic, unapproachable, and perhaps protective exterior. Because of all these layers, the artwork as a whole is "skeuomorphic."

Each breast form is cast from a watermelon. Casting recreates the shape of one object to make a mold for the other, so essentially, trophallaxis does not recreate the watermelon but "re-writes" it. With this casting, colloquial terms for breasts like "jugs" and "melons" and racist epithets of the Black female body like "ripe" and "juicy" resurface. Breasts, like watermelons, ‘othered’ Black female bodies in eugenics and, subsequently, minstrel portrayals. Black women were thought to be biologically distinct because of protruding breasts. Ironically, the body part that so-called distinguished Black women fed generations of white babies as a type of maternal labor. This type of maternal labor tied to enslavement was thought to pass down disease or behaviors to children, even though it became a common practice. Therefore, it questions the idea of transference and the different meanings when the body distorts, stretches, and cracks for someone through wet-nursing a non-biological child.

In all of Leigh’s work, there is duality: references to historical violence against Black femme bodies, but also care infused within her work. In this work, Leigh demonstrates care by reminding Black women of their collective power in how the suspended breasts form a hive, evidence of a collective experience. Despite white supremacist capitalist domination, there is nourishment in togetherness. In fact, culture is born out of these extenuating circumstances where Black women form together in comradery.

Image: Simone Leigh, Trophallaxis, 2008-2017. Terracotta, porcelain, epoxy, graphite, gold and platinum glazes, and antennas. Approximately 12 – 15 × 15 – 20 feet (3.7 – 4.6 × 4.6 – 6.1 m) (height × width); approximately 500 lbs. (226.8 kg). Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami, purchased with funds provided by PAMM's Collectors Council. Copyright: © Simone Leigh. Photo: Farzad Owrang.