Sonia Boyce will be the first black woman to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale.

Justin Kamp
Feb 12, 2020 6:09PM, via The Guardian

Sonia Boyce. Photo by Paul Cochrane, courtesy of UAL, 2013.

Sonia Boyce has been chosen to represent Britain at the next Venice Biennale, making her the first black woman to do so. Boyce, whose work combines photography, drawing, installation, performance, and film, will take over the British Pavilion for the 2021 edition of the world’s most famous recurring exhibition, set to run next year from May through November.

The 58-year old artist told The Times that her work for the pavilion will likely be informed by Brexit, with a focus on how to weather the divisiveness of the present moment:

There are serious questions about how people can come together, particularly when there might be tensions around differences. But through art it is possible.

Sonia Boyce, Devotional, 2018. © Sonia Boyce. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020. Image courtesy Manchester Art Gallery. Photo Mike Pollard.

This is the latest barrier Boyce has broken over the course of her career. In 1987, the Tate bought her drawing Missionary Position II (1985), making her the first black woman to enter the museum’s collection. In 2016, she became the first black woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts. She was awarded the title OBE this year.

Her career has not been without controversy, though. In 2018, Boyce sparked outrage when she collaborated with the Manchester Art Gallery to remove John William Waterhouse’s 1896 painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the gallery’s walls for a week. Boyce later wrote in The Guardian that the action was “an attempt to involve a much wider group of people than usual in the curatorial process,” and to prompt a discussion about the decision-making process behind art that the public consumes.

Boyce’s work often focuses on identity and storytelling. She told The Guardian shortly after the Manchester controversy that her work focuses on the unique experiences her identity affords her. “It was very clear when I was at art college that I was somehow out of place; the system hadn’t anticipated me, or anyone like me,” she said. “As a black person there wasn’t a narrative at all.”

Emma Dexter, the chair of the British pavilion selection committee for the Venice Biennale, expressed a similar sentiment when explaining the committee’s choice. According to The Guardian, she said:

Boyce’s work raises important questions about the nature of creativity, questioning who makes art, how ideas are formed, and the nature of authorship. At such a pivotal moment in the UK’s history, the committee has chosen an artist whose work embodies inclusiveness, generosity, experimentation and the importance of working together.

Sonia Boyce, For you, only you, 2007. Installation view. Three-channel video installation. © Sonia Boyce. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2020. Photo by Mike Pollard.

The next edition of the Venice Biennale has already garnered controversy following France’s selection of Zineb Sedira, the first artist of Algerian descent to represent the country. Sedira’s critics have called for her to step down over accusations she supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates economic and cultural boycotts of the Israeli government in support of Palestinian rights. Sedira has denied the accusations.

Britain was represented by the Belfast-born sculptor and installation artist Cathy Wilkes at the 2019 Venice Biennale. Boyce will be the third black artist to take over the British Pavilion at the Giardini, following Chris Ofili in 2003 and Steve McQueen in 2009.

Justin Kamp