For the first time, both of the Venice Biennale’s top honors went to Black women.
Those awards, known as the Golden Lions, went this year to Simone Leigh and Sonia Boyce, who won for participation in Cecilia Alemani’s main show and for a national pavilion, respectively.
The Silver Lion, for a “promising young artist” in the main show, went to Ali Cherri. Special mentions for Alemani’s exhibition were also awarded to Shuvinai Ashoona and Lynn Hershman Leeson.
Boyce won for her British Pavilion, which was curated by Emma Ridgway. Zineb Sedira’s French Pavilion and the Uganda Pavilion, which featured work by Acaye Kerunen and Collin Sekajugo, received special mentions.
Leigh, who also represented the United States this year at the Venice Biennale, was recognized for Brick House (2019), a 16-foot-tall sculpture that had formerly appeared on New York’s High Line park, where Alemani serves as chief curator. The work depicts an eyeless Black female figure whose form appears to combine with an architectural structure. Drawing on the styles of Batammaliba architecture and Mousgoum dwellings, the work also alludes to Mammy’s Cupboard, an eatery in Natchez, Mississippi, whose building resembles a mammy figure.
Brick House received prominent placement at the Biennale, where it was surrounded by works by Belkis Ayón. It was the first piece viewers saw once they entered the Arsenale section of the main show, titled “The Milk of Dreams,” which was focused loosely on a reemergence of Surrealist tendencies.
In a statement read by Adrienne Edwards, a Whitney Museum curator who led the group that selected the winners, the jury said it had given Leigh the Golden Lion for her “rigorously researched, virtuosically realized, and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural.”
Leigh used her speech to pay homage to people whom she called her “interlocutors,” among them Rashida Bumbray, who will lead an event as part of Leigh’s Biennale pavilion later this year, and artist Lorraine O’Grady.
Boyce’s British Pavilion similarly centered Black women, focusing specifically on ones in Britain whose vast contributions to the country’s musical history have gone under-recognized by the mainstream. Through videos, sculptures, and displays of archival material, Boyce, who first emerged during the Black British Arts movement of the 1980s, surveyed the work of five Black female singers spanning multiple generations and musical styles.
“Sonia Boyce proposes, consequently, another reading of histories through the sonic,” the jury said in its statement.
Through tears, Boyce thanked a number of figures, including the late curator Okwui Enwezor, who brought her work to the main show of the 2015 Venice Biennale. She used her speech to suggest that there are many more figures within her lineage who have yet to emerge.
“We mustn’t forget that there’s an even longer arc, which we see in Zineb,” she said. “We mustn’t forget that there’s a longer arc that’s more than the people than we see here.”
Cherri won for Of Men and Gods and Mud (2022), a video installation that draws a line between the past and the present by way of the Merowe Dam in Sudan. The work envisions the dam as something akin to a creature itself, one that has similarities to beasts seen in art of centuries past. The jury praised the work for “opening up from other narratives that depart from the logic of progress and reason.”
Ahead of the opening of the biennale, the prestigious Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement Awards were given to Cecilia Vicuña and Katharina Fritsch, both of whom are featured in the main show.
The German-born Fritsch was lauded for her uncanny, often over-sized reproductions of objects, animals, and people. Vicuña, a Chilean visual artist and a poet, was honored for her wide-ranging practice “built around a deep fascination with Indigenous traditions and non-Western epistemologies,” according to Alemani in a statement. The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement is typically given to one mid or late-career artist; this year marked the first time since 2013 that two artists shared the prize.
In addition to Edwards, this year’s jury also consists of Lorenzo Giusti, the director of GAMeC Bergamo in Italy; Julieta González, artistic director of Instituto Inhotim in Brazil; Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, the founder of Savvy Contemporary in Berlin, artistic director of Sonsbeek 20–24 in the Netherlands, and the incoming director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin; and Susanne Pfeffer, director of Museum MMK für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt.