Sonia Boyce’s British Pavilion Wins Venice Biennale’s Coveted Golden Lion for Best National Exhibition

Britain’s Sonia Boyce won the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation at the 59th La Biennale di Venezia International Art Exhibition (The milk of dreams, April 23-November 27). Boyce’s work feel his way features a chorus of black female voices against a backdrop of mosaic wallpaper and golden 3D geometric structures. “The pavilion rooms are filled with sound – sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant – embodying feelings of freedom, power and vulnerability,” says the British Council, which commissioned the work. Britain’s last Golden Lion winner was Richard Hamilton in 1993.

Room 1 of Sonia Boyce’s British Pavilion Photo: Cristiano Corté © British Council

Boyce’s installation brings together video works featuring five black female musicians from different generations – Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram and composer Errollyn Wallen – who improvise, interact and perform with their voices. “The resulting singer videos take place in an immersive and luminous environment, full of colorful wallpapers and golden embellishments,” said the Guardian said.

The project expands on Boyce’s devotional initiative, an expanding archive started in 1999 of vinyl records, CDs and memorabilia. The jury for the prize said in a Tweeter that “Sonia Boyce therefore offers another reading of stories through the sonic. Working in collaboration with other black women, she unpacks a wealth of untold stories.

Another black artist, Simone Leigh, who represents the United States at the Giardini, won the Golden Lion for best participant at The milk of dreams exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani. His 16-foot tall sculpture The brick house (2019), depicting a black female figure without eyes, stands at the entrance to the exhibition. The prize jury said Leigh won the prize “for the rigorously studied…and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening of the Arsenale”.

by Simone Leigh A brick house (2019), the first work seen upon entering the main exhibition of the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale Photo: Aimee Dawson

A special mention was given to the French pavilion which is represented this year by Zineb Sedira, the first artist of Algerian origin to represent France. Another special mention was awarded to the Ugandan pavilion which made its debut this year at the Biennale, with artists Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo. Uganda received the award for “recognition of their vision, ambition and commitment to art and work in their country”.

Lynn Hershman Leeson Logic paralyzes the heart (2021) Photo: Roberto Marossi; Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona (Untitled2021) and Lynn Hershman Leeson (Logic paralyzes the heart, 2021) from the United States also received special mentions for their work in The milk of dreams. “Ashoona recognizes the violence of the colonial enterprise and in her work offers opportunities to escape the dead end by listening…and eagerly listening to indigenous knowledge,” reads a press release. Beirut-born artist Ali Cherri won the Silver Lion for Promising Young Entrant; his series of sculptures Titans (2002) — three figurative sculptures made of mud — feature in The milk of dreams.

German artist Katharina Fritsch and Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña also received the prestigious Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement at the awards ceremony. Both artists were chosen by Alemani; Both Fritsch and Vicuña feature in The milk of dreams exposure. Alemani said that “Fritsch’s contribution to the field of contemporary art, particularly sculpture, has been incomparable”. In the meantime, Vicuna “has walked her own path [for decades] anticipating numerous ecological and feminist debates, envisaging new personal and collective mythologies”.

The members of the jury are Adrienne Edwards (president), Lorenzo Giusti (Italy), Julieta González (Mexico), Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (Cameroon) and Susanne Pfeffer (Germany).

Alemani said in his opening speech that “it took two years of fear and terrible loss to get here.” The Biennale was postponed last year following the Covid-19 pandemic; the only other time the major event was delayed in 1944 at the end of World War II. We are “living in an extraordinary historical moment,” Alemani added.

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