The Floating City beckons
On April 19, 1893 the Venetian City Council passed a resolution to set up a biennial exhibition of Italian Art, Esposizione biennale artistica nazionale, to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy.
One year later it was agreed to reserve a section of the exhibition for foreign artists. The first Biennale opened in April 1895, and has continued to run till the present day, apart from closures during the 1st and 2nd world wars.
The UK chooses a British artist to represent the art of this country for each biennale; this year marks a first, because Sonia Boyce RA, the chosen artist, is the first black woman to do so. Her work will fill the UK pavilion from May until November 2021.
Boyce is a British Afro-Caribbean artist who lives and works in London. She studied at Stourbridge College, West Midlands. Her early work addressed issues of race and gender in the media and in day-to-day life. She expressed these themes through large pastel drawings and photographic collages. More recent work draws on a variety of media such as photographs, collages, films, prints, drawings, installation and sound.
Boyce first came to prominence at the forefront of the black British art scene in the early 1980s. In 1983 she took part in an exhibition at the Africa Centre in London titled: Five Black Women. In 1987, she became the first black woman to enter the Tate’s collection when it bought her drawing titled Missionary Position II; 29 years later in 2016, she became the first black woman to be elected a Royal Academician.
She is represented in the permanent collections of Arts Council England and in the Tate Modern, London. She is currently Professor of Fine Arts at Middlesex University, London and Professor of Black Art and Design at University of the Arts London.
Boyce has expressed surprise at being chosen to represent British art and has been quoted as saying: ‘You could have knocked me down with a feather’. However, it seems that she has managed to get over that quickly and is making plans. She has stated that the fall-out from Brexit will inevitably influence her work at the Biennale, as will the idea of nationhood at the event, which is known as the Olympics of the art world. She notes that the Biennale itself was established to ‘promote the so-called best of what was happening in any given country or nation.’ She has also hinted that she will be encouraging other people to get involved in a spirit of collaboration. Her enthusiasm is contagious: ‘Obviously, I’m extremely honoured, excited – and nervous. I’m eager to start this creative journey, exploring the experience with others who agree to work with me along the way.’
Boyce was awarded an OBE in the 2019 Honours list for services to art. I am indebted to Dame Sandra, a keen follower of damesnet and frequent commentator on our blogs, for having drawn my attention to Sonia Boyce’s landmark achievement. We wish her well in Venice.