With Venice Biennale announcements continuing to roll in, a historic one was made today, with the British Council revealing that artist Sonia Boyce will represent Great Britain at the Italian art festival’s 2021 edition, which runs from May of next year through November. Boyce will be the first black woman to represent Britain at the prestigious art show and the third black artist ever to have done so solo in its decades-long history, after Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen.
“You could have knocked me down with a feather when I got the call to tell me I had been chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale 2021—it was like a bolt out of the blue,” Boyce said in a statement. “Obviously, I’m extremely honored, 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.”
Starting in the 1980s, Boyce began making taking tender portraits of black subjects, with a particular focus on women, in response to a wave of racism that swept the United Kingdom. Her drawings, paintings, and photographs have focused on what it means to be black in a largely white, patriarchal society, and they have sometimes alluded to her Afro-Caribbean heritage.
For some, Boyce is best known for a controversy that started in 2018, when, as part of a mid-career survey at the Manchester Art Gallery in England, she demanded that the museum remove the John Waterhouse painting Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), which features topless teenage girls seemingly as femmes fatales tempting the beautiful young homosexual lover of Hercules. After hearing from museum staff that the work made them uncomfortable, Boyce had the institution remove the painting for a week, in an attempt to open up the curatorial process.
Emma Dexter, the British Council’s visual arts director and the pavilion’s commissioner, said in a statement, “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 U.K.’s history, the Committee has chosen an artist whose work embodies inclusiveness, generosity, experimentation and the importance of working together.”