Simone Leigh’s The Waiting Room: art that tries to heal black women’s pain

The artists new exhibition pays tribute to Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died on the floor of a New York City hospital, by presenting an alternative vision of the US healthcare system

On 19 June 2008, 49 -year-old Esmin Elizabeth Green died in the waiting room of Kings County hospital center in Brooklyn. She had been waiting 24 hours to see a doctor, fell out of her chair, and died on the floor from blood clots that moved from her legs to her lungs. A surveillance video demonstrates security guards strolling past her as she lies motionless in the waiting room. A nurse checked her pulse 30 minutes after she died.

Eight years on, the New York artist Simone Leigh pays homage to Green in a new exhibition at the citys New Museum called The Waiting Room. Obedience is one of the main threats to black womens health; it was a survival mechanism that Green waited 24 hours before collapse, tells Leigh. What happened to Green is an example of the lack of empathy people have towards the ache of black women.

Leighs show offers an African American, female vision of healthcare as an alternative to the hugely expensive system in the US, dominated by insurance and medication companies swooping in upon the sick, exhausted and depressed all three of which described Green.

The project mines certain kinds of knowledge that are passed between black women, Leigh tells. I wanted to expand the idea of medicine to include other self-defense and care mechanisms like strategy, or even desire, as alternatives to the stamina and obedience that is expected as normative behaviour. Herbalism and dance would fall into the category of knowledge that defies the market and capitalization.

Honoring Green, the exhibition therefore includes a public health healing center that offers free workshops on holistic care and a six-week herbalism course, community acupuncture class and massage sessions alongside a series of health and wellness lecturings. These types of things would have helped prevent Esmin Green from running herself to death, tells Leigh. Green had worked as a caregiver for the elderly and at a childrens day care centre, sending fund back to her six kids in Jamaica. Its about cultivating a lifestyle that is more self-supporting.

Leighs Leighs herbs, which she is displaying in the gallery. Photograph: Nadja Sayej for the Guardian

The exhibition also offers ways to prevent illness by providing free educational seminars with experts. We feel the urgency because of what happened to the nation of US health care, which is not good, tells Leigh. From what I have find, we have one of the worst healthcare systems internationally. And it adversely affects people of color.

This show connects to Leighs previous project, the Free Peoples Medical Clinic, which she created in Brooklyn in 2014 and which offered healthcare without charge. The New Museum is not free, so its impossible to relocate a Free Peoples Medical Clinic here, tells Leigh. Nevertheless, she found a style around the gallerys $20 entrance fee outside exhibition hours, there will be workshops hosted in private as part of a project called the Waiting Room Underground.

We will be hosting these workshops when the museum is shut there wont be any spectatorship; no photography or video, she tells. This is a longstanding tradition of continuing your work underground when youre not allowed to do it in public. I dont feel like Im doing anything new. Its just different because its in an art context.

Inspired by African American secret societies and private clubs such as the free medical clinics set up by the Black Panthers in the 1960 s and the United Order of Tents, a society of black female nurses that dates back to the Underground Railroad Leigh wanted to keep this part of the exhibition out of the public eye.

On the museums fifth floor, meanwhile, the exhibition features a meditation room with a fully stocked apothecary filled with herbs Leigh has collected from all over the world. I merely brought 70 lbs of chamomile into the gallery. It reeks great, she tells. Its important to take care of yourself with plants rather than rely on pharmaceutical medication.

While statements like this may well cause a blizzard of protest from the Bad Science brigade, Leigh is referring to historical precedents. I dont pretend to be a public health expert, she tells. The project is more about remembering and honoring the the efforts of the Black Panthers and getting back to the basics of learning how to take care of yourself. In the global south, I have noticed the use of herbs as an everyday, foundational style to care for the body. Some of the herbs in the installing are from a single block in Chinatown on Grand Street that houses several apothecaries, only a few streets from the New Museum itself. I think we have gotten to the point which is something we dont is understood that pharmaceuticals are in fact derived from plants, and we guess the plants themselves are suspect.

Among the six lecturings, which are all led by women, is On Disobedience, by the artist Chitra Ganesh, on 30 June, which Leigh describes as cultivating a culture of protest something anyone can do even on their kitchen table. Another artist, Lorraine OGrady, gives a talk on 4 August called Ask Me Anything About Ageing.

Leigh is partnering with local organizations that will bring in groups of black women to attend three different class, including home economics, self-defence and self-awareness courses led by the herbalist Karen Rose, the musician Karou Watanabe and the philosopher Aimee Meredith Cox. Most people participating in the clinic are my personal friends, smiles Leigh. What can I tell? Im surrounded by fabulous people.

There will also be Taiko drumming class for LGBT youth and a six-week paid summer internship for teens, who will work alongside museum faculty. I could not be more excited, tells the artist.

Leighs exhibition is an act of selflessness in a narcissistic, selfie-driven art world. But she doesnt take all the credit. In fact, she chuckles, Im not an herbalist or an activist, Im merely an artist.

In my community, Ive seen our lives get harder , not easier. Im finding ways to incorporate self-care practises, suggesting its not a luxury its basic self-care.

Simone Leighs The Waiting Room is open at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, and operates until 18 September. Sign up for class on the same day; first come first served. See the full list of class here

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