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Semi-Public Acupuncture Penetrates a Museum

On pins and needles for social activism with artist Simone Leigh.
Simone Leigh: The Waiting Room, 2016, Simone Leigh, Courtesy New Museum, New York, Photo by Robin Cembalest.

When you arrive on the fifth floor of New Museum, a floral fragrance greets you. Wafting out of artist Simone Leigh’s in-situ apothecary, a heady mix of chamomile, lavender, hibiscus and other natural remedies sets the tone for The Waiting Room, her new residency. As the next chapter of Leigh’s Free People’s Medical Clinic from 2014, the show builds upon the previous month-long program of free treatments, which Leigh developed with the help of Creative Time and several local practitioners, including massage therapist Malik K. Bellamy and herbalist Karen Rose.


The original Free People’s Medical Clinic took place at the home of Dr. Josephine English, the first black OBGYN in New York, but at New Museum it comprises a whole gallery. Leigh and her original collaborators plan to use the museum as a hub for health-related workshops, lectures, and a robust, teen-focused program.

I arrived for my care session, called "Community Acupuncture," run by licensed acupuncturist Julia Bennett. Practicing since the 70s, Bennett specializes in public health and she frequently uses her holistic approach to treat those suffering from HIV and AIDS. With demonstrators gathering around the city in response to the back-to-back shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the session felt particularly timely. While I am no newbie to acupuncture or needles, I arrived a little shaky. What would community acupuncture entail?

Check-in was painless: a single liability waiver. I signed it in the apothecary as curator Johanna Burton pointed out some of the jars that had been gathered. “The teens are manning the apothecary, talking directly to visitors about the herbs and their properties,” Burton explained. “Some of them are from Leigh’s extensive travels in Asia and Africa, and some are from down the block in Chinatown. It’s more about the exchange of information. Visitors are just as likely to share their own associations and experiences with the plants.”

The passing down of knowledge, between generations of black women, is at the heart of The Waiting Room. Connected to the nurses that worked on the Underground Railroad and in the tents of the Black Panthers, Leigh’s project draws from history in order to build a strong proposal for the future. Sandbags line the apothecary and hint at the walls that had to be erected when people shot into Black Panther hospital tents in the 60s and 70s. The allusion feels particularly powerful in light of recent shootings at hospitals, schools, and other public-facing care centers.


When it was time, I lined up with four fellow participants—among them a social acquaintance, and, coincidentally, Leigh’s former studio assistant, who had just arrived from the protests. Bennett introduced herself, and guided everyone behind a curtain of military-grade snow camouflage, which had been drawn to seal off what normally functions as an open mediation studio. Individual screens were erected between the beds, but you could still see your neighbors through the cracks. While our clothes remained on, one couldn’t help but feel slightly exposed to the elements. The camouflage was not opaque enough to block other museum visitors from seeing what was happening. It is this slippage between private and public that plays itself out over and over again across the installation.

I went last, but I could hear by fellow participants unloading their physical and emotional ailments on Bennett. She prescribed solutions in hushed tones, needles in hand. With an open confessional booth dynamic, participants took their turn at playing the voyeur and the patient. When I was up, Bennett spoke softly, asking me about what I’d like to focus on. I said anxiety and my finger, whose tip I’d recently cut. She moved quickly, and methodically. The sessions are only 30 minutes each. She poked needles into my calves, my hands, and my face. They tingled. The pressure point sent mysterious messages through my body. As soon as she disappeared behind the screen, a group of visitors arrived on the floor, peering in at those lying on the tables. “Is this still the museum?” asked one guest. I wanted to answer yes, but I felt compelled to stay still with one lone needle protruding between my eyebrows.


By the time Bennett came to remove my needles, I felt like I was on my way to sleep. Standing up slowly, I felt a euphoric haze that followed me into the elevator.  A couple, who had signed up on a whim, seemed equally elated. It was their first time trying acupuncture. They resolved to make it more habitual. Outside, I ran into my friend on her way out. Steadied by the session, her mood seemed lifted. One step closer on a long journey towards healing.

To learn more about the artist, click here.


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