The 59th edition of the Venice Biennale is underway, and immediately one of the biggest talking points surrounding the event is the notable rise in female artists exhibiting within the main show Milk of Dreams, where 90% of the work featured is by women artists. Head curator Cecilia Alemani described this outcome as “not a choice, but a process”, naturally gravitating towards themes informed by writers including Ursula Le Guin and Donna Haraway. In a report released by the Freelands Foundation, findings show more women (66%) are enrolling in postgraduate study in the creative arts. Being a Fine Art graduate myself, and experiencing these statistics in person – it is refreshing to see the Biennale embracing women, and creating opportunities which are more reflective of the art world today.
This celebration of female artists continues as we saw Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh, the first Black women to represent their respective countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, each receive the Golden Lion award. This marks the first time in the 127-year history of the Biennale that this top honour has been awarded to a Black woman artist. Leigh’s sculpture Brick House stands in welcome at the central exhibition in the Arsenale. Inviting viewers into the rounded room to circle the 16-foot-tall sculpture, like pilgrims to a divine monument, renegotiating the historically erased black female body into something powerful and beautiful to be seen.
The bust of the sculpture emulates the architecture found in West African cultures, specifically the Batammaliba; people of Northeast Togo. Translated Batammaliba means ‘those who are the real architects of the earth.’ Leigh plays into this interconnection between ourselves, our environments and our architecture, using the strength of the Black female form as a symbol of resilience, strength and as a space of comfort – she is home.
The spirit of femininity prevails throughout the Biennale carrying through to Boyce’s exhibition, aptly named Feeling Her Way. Spotlighting the talents of 5 Black British musicians, Boyce invited them into Abbey Road Studios and asked them to improvise in order to showcase their talents. Taking their voices, Boyce has created a multitude of sonic experiences, blending and overlapping each of their unique sounds to create a harmonious installation. In one of the many films, Boyce instructs the women to improvise, roaring out like lions. There is something freeing in watching them embrace their own dominance, embodying the animal within.
There’s a part of me that enjoys making noise — and wanting other people to create noise. – Sonia Boyce
Much like Leigh’s Brick House, the overbearing sounds captivate the attention of our senses. As a result, the work demands space in our minds, making it clear that it deserves our full attention – and we are all ready to listen.
‘Feeling her Way’ is linked in part with Boyce’s Devotional Project, and her long effort to archive the history of British Black women in music. So often the history of people of colour’s achievements and contributions have long been lost and forgotten. To see Boyce actively bear the responsibility of building her archive, gives hope that these stories will one day be given a voice and the recognition they deserve.
Sonia Boyce gives a remarkable interview where she walks through the many elements of her show, linked here.
Krista heads to the Venice Biennale on June 6th, so we can expect to see many more reviews to come.
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