British artist Sonia Boyce lands top prize at Venice Biennale

The 59th Venice Biennale, which had been scheduled for 2021 but delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, had its pre-opening from 20-22 April and presented its highest prize, the Golden Lion, to British artist Sonia Boyce.

This year’s Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani is set to be a ground-breaking affair. It has been dubbed “the women’s biennale”, as it shines the spotlight on female artists in an unprecedented way. Out of the 213 artists involved, only 21 are men, marking a complete role reversal from previous biennales. Alemani said of this decision that, “I have always worked with many women artists – and I think some of the most talented artists working today are women”. Historically, the main exhibition has included only around 10-30% female artists, and only in 2019 did the event see almost equal participation from men and women.

It is fitting, therefore, that the highest award went to the first Black woman to represent Britain at the event. Sonia Boyce’s winning piece, Feeling Her Way, combines video, collage, music, and sculpture in a truly innovative way. It features videos of five Black female musicians who are improvising and singing a cappella. The musicians included are Jacqui Dankworth, Poppy Ajudha, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram, and composer Errollyn Wallen, who are filmed in a studio rehearsal recording session.

The British Council, who commissioned the piece, spoke of the evocative atmosphere in the British pavilion in Venice: “The rooms of the [British] pavilion are filled with sounds – sometimes harmonious, sometimes clashing – embodying feelings of freedom, power and vulnerability”.

Boyce spoke of her win to The New York Times, saying that: “I have been around the block a few times, but this is probably the biggest commission I’ve ever done […] That was a really glorious challenge.” She explained that “the project at the center of the pavilion is about the question of collective remembering, and resisting the erasure of women’s voices within the British music system.”

Adrienne Edwards, director of curatorial affairs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and a member of the Biennale’s jury, praised Boyce’s piece. She said Boyce offered “another reading of histories through sonic”, and that “in working collaboratively with other Black women [Boyce] unpacks a plenitude of silenced stories.” The other big prize of the event, the Golden Lion for best artist in the Biennale’s central exhibition, went to American artist Simone Leigh, whose work, Sovereignty – a 16-foot tall bronze of a Black woman – was described as a “powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening to the Arsenale”.

This is the first time a British artist has won the Golden Lion in nearly 30 years, since Richard Hamilton was the winner in 1993. The Venice Biennale opened to the public on 23 April, and will run until 27 November.

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