Sonia Boyce's British pavilion wins Venice Biennale's coveted Golden Lion for best national exhibition

Sonia Boyce of Great Britain has won the Golden Lion prize for Best National Participation at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (The Milk of Dreams, 23 April-27 November). Boyce’s work Feeling Her Way features a chorus of Black female voices set against tessellating wallpaper and golden 3D geometric structures. “The rooms of the pavilion are filled with sounds—sometimes harmonious, sometimes clashing—embodying feelings of freedom, power and vulnerability,” says the British Council, which commissioned the work. The last British winner of the Golden Lion was Richard Hamilton in 1993.​

Boyce’s installation brings together video works featuring five Black women musicians of different generations—Poppy Ajudha, Jacqui Dankworth, Sofia Jernberg, Tanita Tikaram and composer Errollyn Wallen—who improvise, interact and play with their voices. “The resulting videos of the singers play out in an immersive, bright environment full of colourful wallpaper and golden embellishment,” the Guardian says.​

The project expands on Boyce’s Devotional initiative, an expanding archive begun in 1999 of vinyl, CDs and memorabilia. The prize's jury said in a tweet that “Sonia Boyce proposes, consequently, another reading of histories through the sonic. In working collaboratively with other black women, she unpacks a plenitude of silenced stories.”​

Another Black woman artist, Simone Leigh—who is representing the US in the Giardini—took the Golden Lion for best participant in The Milk of Dreams exhibition, curated by Cecilia Alemani. Her 16ft-tall sculpture The Brick House (2019), depicting an eyeless Black female figure, stands at the exhibition entrance. The prize jury says Leigh won the award “for the rigorously researched… and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening to the Arsenale”.​

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

The Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona (Untitled, 2021) and Lynn Hershman Leeson (Logic Paralyzes the Heart, 2021) of the US also received special mentions for their works in The Milk of Dreams. “Ashoona acknowledges the violence of the colonial enterprise and in her work proposes possibilities of escaping the cul-de-sac by listening in… and listening forward to indigenous knowledge,” a press statement says. The Beirut-born artist Ali Cherri won the Silver Lion for Promising Young Participant; his sculpture series Titans (2002)—three figurative sculptures made of mud—features in The Milk of Dreams.​

The German artist Katharina Fritsch and the 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 exhibition. Alemani said that “Fritsch’s contribution to the field of contemporary art, especially sculpture, has been incomparable.” Vicuna meanwhile “has travelled her own path [for decades] anticipating many ecological and feminist debates, envisioning new personal and collective mythologies”. ​

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

Alemani said in her opening address that it “took two years of fear and terrible losses to get here”. The Biennale was postponed last year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic; the event was also delayed in 1944 at the end of the Second World War. We are “living in an extraordinary historical moment”, added Alemani.​