The Courtauldian in Venice
Welcome to The Courtauldian in Venice! We are delighted to share with you the results of a collaborative project between The Courtauld Institute of Art, Bloomberg Connects, and The Courtauldian.
As a world leading institution for the study of art history, The Courtauld has produced countless key figures in the art world. For this project, two Courtauld students were given the opportunity to attend the preview week of the 59th Venice Biennale to interview several of our Courtauld alumni about their careers since studying at The Courtauld and their current roles in Venice.
The 2022 Venice Biennale is themed ‘The Milk of Dreams’ after Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington’s book of the same name. Over the following weeks we will be sharing video interviews with you, alongside related articles from The Courtauldian team, on The Courtauld's Bloomberg Connects app profile. Included in these will be interviews with alumni Katya García-Antón, curator of the historic Biennale Sámi Pavilion, and Gražina Subelytė, curator of the Surrealism and Magic exhibition currently showing at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Stay tuned for more!
Sonia Boyce: Wallpapering the British Pavilion
by Caroline Benedict | 19 May 2022
On the occasion of the 2022 Venice Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection explores the theme of the occult in Surrealism. The exhibition Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity, organised by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Museum Barberini and curated by Grazina Subelyte, immerses visitors into a world of mystery, where marvellous landscapes and mystical creatures challenge the laws of nature.
As a multifaceted cultural movement encompassing literature, poetry and visual arts, Surrealism is well-known for its free imagery that disregards logical boundaries and embraces the enigmatic world of the unconscious. The Surrealist movement, whose name was coined in 1917 by poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, takes its roots in the aftermath of World War One, with André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s 1919 publication of the first chapters of Les Champs magnétiques. The two authors gave free play to their thoughts through ‘automatic’ writing, unlocking ideas and images from their unconscious. As artists witnessed humanity tearing itself apart through two world wars in the span of half a century, Surrealism allowed them to express the sense of absurdity they perceived in the world. They let go of rules and found strength in symbolist, magical, and illogical representations.
Works of art identified as part of that artistic stream are often related to the exploration of the unconscious mind, relying on Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Artists like René Magritte, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí drew on the development of Freud’s theories and discoveries relating to the unconscious mind to explore new territories and unlock unconstrained and disturbing imagery. However, the sixty works of art gathered at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection reveal the interest that artists affiliated with Surrealism had for the supernatural, the occult and esoteric symbols. Breton was interested in the occult and declared a 1915 portrait of Apollinaire by de Chirico as an ‘act of divination’, as it had effectively predicted the death of the writer.
Across the works displayed in Venice, absurd, hybrid, and fantastic creatures evolve in disturbed environments charged with symbols. Bright blue skies and lush forests seem treacherous and as unpredictable as the devastated landscapes or rocky mountains. In Leonor Fini’s Portrait of Princess Francesca Ruspoli, 1944, an intimidating female figure alludes to witchcraft. She holds a wand and wears a black, silk dress, with a torso like that of a black crow. A murky landscape and a gargoyle-like creature at her feet add to the iconography of the occult, suggesting a far-away fantasy land. In Leonora Carrington’s The Pleasures of Dagobert, 1945, a series of fable-like fantastic histories, dangerous rituals and ceremonies seem to unfold across the canvas, with a variety of hidden meanings.
These paintings play with time. Symbols and irrational shapes that could belong to our century pervade the paintings. In Victor Brauner’s The Surrealist, 1947, a peculiar, gigantic insect-like creature feeding on a fire seems to come straight from a contemporary video game or an animated movie. While some of the exhibited works could have been painted today, they also draw on the past. Don’t these paintings hint at the famous fantastic iconography of Hieronymus Bosch, or the grotesque characters of both Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger? In Carrington’s painting, maidens wear medieval attires and interact with mystical creatures. As in Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500, a variety of scenes take place simultaneously: in a corner, a priest is performing a ritual, burning an upside-down figure in a fierce fire, right next to a strange creature peacefully bathing in a river against a blue sky. In Max Ernst’s Attirement of the Bride, 1940, a grotesque gargoyle-like creature and a menacing, green man-bird flank the two central naked female creatures, reminiscent of characters often found in medieval manuscripts.
It is quite clear that, in organising the show, the curator wished to display the works of a variety of artists. As well as male dominant figures of the movement, Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity emphasizes the work of less famous female artists affiliated with Surrealism. The exhibition thus resonates both with Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of Surrealist paintings she built in the interwar period and her effort to represent and support female artists throughout her career. Guggenheim was amongst the most influential women who shaped the art world of the twentieth century, alongside Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) and Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984). At the age of 22, after inheriting a fortune, Guggenheim left New York for Paris, where she moved in a circle of avant-garde artists and writers. Through these acquaintances, she started a collection of abstract and Surrealist paintings, initially mostly including works by male artists such as Piet Mondrian or Salvador Dalí. She moved to London and opened a gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, where she exhibited the works she had acquired in Paris. The gallery’s financial difficulties precipitated its closure and, although Guggenheim wished to return to Paris to open a gallery there, she had to flee National Socialism due to her Jewish identity. Initially finding refuge in the South of France, she eventually had to return to New York upon the Nazis’ invasion of the region.
In New York, Guggenheim opened The Art of This Century, a new gallery exhibiting cubist and abstract art in an interactive and innovative space. By that time, Guggenheim had amassed a large and diverse collection of works of art. In 1942, she organised a pivotal exhibition named 31 Women, one of the first ever exhibitions exclusively dedicated to female artists. This groundbreaking show presented abstract and Surrealist paintings and sculptures, amongst which Leonor Fini’s Shepherdess of the Sphinxes, 1941 and Carrington’s Horses of Lord Candlestick, 1938, both present at the Venice show. 31 Women displayed works by Louise Nevelson, Xenia Cage, Frida Kahlo and Meret Oppenheim. The show was a success and a second exhibition dedicated to female artists, The Women, followed in 1945, featuring 33 artists, including Louise Bourgeois.
Thanks to Guggenheim’s collection of Surrealist works, visitors can dive into the mystical and spiritual realms of Surrealism. These works embody the spirit of the time, the craving for a mental and emotional escape from socio-political turmoil. More than ever, we may understand and even share that craving which we usually satisfy through our contemporary – often virtual – means of distraction. Although popular amongst modern art lovers, Surrealism is a multifaceted movement that proves to have grounds left to investigate. The exhibition at the Biennale is the opportunity to explore this enigmatic facet of the Surrealist movement.
Caroline Benedict is an MA student at The Courtauld and is a Reviews Editor at The Courtauldian.
Sonia Boyce: Wallpapering the British Pavilion
by Madeleine Jordan | 13 May 2022
This article accompanies an interview on the Courtauld's Bloomberg Connects app profile with Courtauld Alumna and British Pavilion Development Officer Agata Eltman on Golden Lion award-winner Sonia Boyce’s powerful sound installation of Black female voices.
Illustration by Olivia Keable
- Sonia Boyce
British born, to a Guyanese Father and Barbadian Mother, Sonia Boyce lives life between an “Anglicised background and a West Indian foreground.” Or, as she puts it another way, somewhere between, “but look at my trials nah” and “gaw blimey.” She is an artist whose had a long career of ‘firsts’: the first Black British woman to have a painting purchased by Tate (1987), the first Black British woman elected to the Royal Academy (2016), and now the first Black British woman to represent Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale (2022). The accolades are “undercut,” says Boyce, by the “sense that somehow I’m out of place,” that “actually what is being said underneath is ‘oh, we weren’t expecting you.’” The British Pavilion represents a contemporary presentation of Britishness, not just in terms of art, but in terms of national identity. For her installation, Boyce wants us to ask ourselves these questions: “who do you expect to be British?” and “how do we negotiate difference in our day-to-day lives, let alone in terms of making artworks?”
In 1982, Boyce and around 200 Black artists and students attended the Keith Piper ‘Black Art’ show conference at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. From this meeting, the British Black Arts Movement was formed. Boyce’s involvement in group shows like Lubaina Himid’s ‘Five Black Women’ (1983), ‘Black Woman Time Now’ (1983), and Rasheed Araeen’s ‘The Other Story’ (1989), solidified her practice in the contemporary art scene and politically radical race and gender discourse.
Her 1986 work Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great, demonstrates both the oppression Boyce felt as a Black woman and the colonial cruelty the idea of Britishness is built upon. Referencing the Victorian sexual instructional phrase “lay back and think of England.” Boyce draws together colonial and domestic legacies of subjugation.
Like graves, the three crucifixes in Lay Back remember the loss of life and liberty for indigenous peoples dominated by colonial rule. The final panel is dominated by a self-portrait of Boyce. Her face stands proud against the wallpaper backdrop and flat memories of black and white murders. Her portrait calls forth a hopeful yet reflective impulse to liberate Black women from the histories of religious and colonial violence.
The ensnaring wallpaper pattern with black English roses, thorny tendrils and green leaves speaks to Boyce’s conceptual visualisation of intersecting modes of oppression. Boyce’s wallpaper literally overlays colonial and women's history onto the white walls. Gifted to Queen Victoria on her golden jubilee as Empress of the British Empire, William Morris made a commemorative wallpaper which depicted four conquered continents. As Boyce recalls, “I looked at William Morris wallpapers and some of his philosophies and these two elements anchored how I articulated my experience of growing up in the UK.”
For Boyce, “Black skin is always visible. I was thinking of the paper in these terms, that the wall’s skin is paper.” Her contemporary work has been driven by investigating curatorial and archival processes as a means of rediscovering and reanimating long forgotten artistic contributions by Black and Asian British artists. The walls of an institution are covered in layers of history, and she wants us to ask, “Whose Power is on Display?”
Boyce led the Arts and Humanities Research Council Project, ‘Black Artists and Modernism,’ which uncovered 2000 works by Black and Asian British artists stored, but never displayed, in British institutions. Through her research, Boyce uncovered the pointedly anonymised identity of Ira Aldridge, the subject of James Northcote’s portrait Othello Moor of Venice. In 2018, Boyce worked with the Manchester Art Gallery, where the painting is hung, to recontextualise and reassert Black and queer histories on the walls. As Boyce discovered – through conversation with gallery goers, staff, and the curation team – representations of women, queer, and non-white subjects were denied agency within the gallery. The 18th and 19th century collections on display had remained unchanged since their installation in 2002. “There seemed to be two roles played by women: femme fatales, driving men to their deaths, or figures of beauty in quiet contemplation, but without being active agents…” Boyce acted as a catalyst and collaborated with five performance artists, some from the local Drag family Gorgeous, to perform interventions challenging binary notions of gender, sexuality, and race.
In Six Acts, those people representationally unempowered were invited to insert themselves into the space. Lasana Shabazz performed Act One As… Ira Aldridge… God Save the Queen Abolitionist version as Whiteface Minstrel as… Football Hooligan. The lengthy title denotes the phases of said performance; Aldridge was one of the first Black actors to play a white role on stage and Shabazz dons make-up to become a white-faced character too. Shabazz sings Stephen Foster’s 1850 song Camptown Races which was intended to mock the speech pattern of African Americans.
The staff noted that the Pre-Raphaelite depiction of Hylas’ doom seemed to attract a predatory subculture of grooming and harassment around the painting. The John Waterhouse work depicts pale prepubescent nymphs coquettishly luring Hylas into a lily-pad lake. Boyce facilitated relationships between people from every professional area of the Manchester Art Gallery culminating in the removal of Waterhouse’s painting for a short period. The audience were invited to write down their thoughts and layer paper notes onto the wall where the painting had been hung. The project was far from being the act of “censorship” akin to that of “book-burning” that some mainstream media dubbed it as. Instead, the takeover revealed and made visible the usually hidden institutional machinery shielded to the public.
For the British Pavilion, Boyce is returning to Devotional, a series revealing and celebrating the forgotten history of Black British women musicians and singers. The series started as a six-month project in 1999 with Liverpool Black Sisters and was a collaborative process of discovery and naming Black women musical artists. The 46 names were drawn from family, friends and the group and spanned from Shirley Bassey to Sade. The resulting artwork was a multi-media display of sound, collage and placards set against Boyce wallpaper.
The list of names has expanded over the years and now numbers 350. The names and narratives are woven together much like musical harmonies and are repeated in reverberations to create a rippling wallpaper. Devotional celebrates the rich and influential musical tradition produced across the African Diaspora which still plays in our homes and continues to contribute enormously to contemporary British culture. This work is the culmination of an artistic practice which interweaves domestic and national memories through interior spaces, sound, and history. Sonically and historically, Sonia Boyce’s installation in the British Pavilion will echo on.
Sámi Voicing Sámi
by Lynn Ha | 09 May 2022
This article exploring the decolonial aims of the Venice Biennale Sámi Pavilion by Courtauldian columnist Lynn Ha accompanies a video interview with Courtauld alumna Katya García-Antón available to watch on The Courtauld's Bloomberg Connects app profile. In this interview, García-Antón speaks on the experience of curating the historic Sámi Pavilion, the importance of platforming Sámi artwork, and how indigenous knowledge could help tackle climate change.
Illustration by Olivia Keable
Decolonisation has always come across as a difficult subject to me – despite being a person of colour who has a great passion for learning and writing about the relationship between ethnic minorities and art history — or perhaps because of those two very reasons. The very complicated nature of decolonisation becomes even more prominent when considering its etymology of ‘de’ — it is essentially a struggle to go back in time, to undo everything that has been established, and to reverse everything. As necessary, reassuring, and beneficial as such a reversal seems, I nonetheless find myself in a rather sceptical position in relation to decolonisation. Not because I think it was not needed, but more because I think it might be too perfect to be true, and too difficult an aim to be ever achieved. Frankly speaking, I have secretly refused to believe that decolonisation was possible.
Yet, I must confess that when I first read about the 59th Venice Biennale and its change of name of the Nordic pavilion to the Sámi pavilion, I felt my longstanding scepticism and cynicism wavering: my perspective on the very prospect of decolonisation – in the art sector, specifically – unexpectedly shifting.
The premise itself is astonishing. The Nordic pavilion, which has previously been a pavilion dedicated to the three countries comprising Sweden, Norway, and Finland, is changing its name temporarily for this year’s Biennale to the Sámi pavilion, after the indigenous Sámi peoples. Traditionally dispersed across the three Scandinavian countries, the cultural region is called Sámpi in the language of the Sámi peoples, which in fact is a term that stands for both the people and their land.
The Sámi peoples have endured innumerable hardships in their efforts to merely maintain their way of living and protect their essential human rights. The Sámi living in northern Norway, for example, have been in a long-lasting dispute with the Norwegian government regarding their land protection. With the Norwegian government expropriating lands of the Arctic for the development of infrastructures, including mines and tunnels, the indigenous Sámi people have increasingly feared the loss of their land which is crucial for herding reindeer. Many Sámi people have traditionally been reindeer herders, with reindeer herding considered much more than a business. Indeed, it is considered a way of living with, within, and alongside nature.
Because reindeer herding lies at the heart of Sámi identity, the concerns regarding reindeer protection link directly to the protection of Sámi rights and are thus shared by most Sámi people living in different national parts of Sámpi. Housing three Sámi artists – Pauliina Feodoroff (from the Finnish and Russian part of Sámpi), Máret Ánne Sara (from the Norwegian part of Sámpi), and Anders Sunna (from the Swedish part of Sámpi), all of whom are from different parts of Sámpi that are divided between four nation-states – the Sámi pavilion shows clearly how the shared concern is creatively expressed and addressed with different artistic forms.
Ánne Sara works mainly with physical bodies of reindeers. Her work Pile o’Sampi, which was exhibited for the Kassel Documenta 14 in 2017, for example, displayed innumerable skulls of reindeer arrayed together in a wall formation. The piece, alongside her other pieces, refers to the rights of Sámi people with its visual motif of reindeer. In fact, Pile o’Sampi refers directly to the legal dispute that her brother, a Sámi reindeer herder, directed toward the Norwegian government’s demand to slaughter a significant number of his reindeer. At the Documenta, she shared a public discussion with curator Candice Hopkins on the piece and the ongoing struggle for protecting the rights of Sámi people. During the conversation, named The Parliament of Bodies, the artist powerfully vocalised the limitations of democracy and the societal neglection of indigenous peoples’ rights, a problem that is not confined to Norway, but rather spans the entire globe. “The colonial instinct is fierce,” Ánne Sara said, adding that “democracy is not always a good thing for minorities.” During the verdict for her brother’s first trial, in which he won the case it was acknowledged that “the Norwegian government has violated International Human Rights by such forced measure.” Ánne Sara’s work questions the entrenched colonial predisposition apparent in the workings of contemporary societal institutions.
Illustration by Olivia Keable
Similar to Ánne Sara, Anders Sunna’s work also speaks about his own family’s struggle to protect their lands for reindeer herding. Perhaps the most overtly political of the artworks included in the Sámi pavilion, his paintings and graffiti not only use satirical tones but also include figurative depictions in their aim to criticise the Swedish government and the oppressive measures imposed on Sámi people, including his own family.
Moreover, climate change and global warming present enormous obstacles for Sámi people’s being. Climate change may come across to non-indigenous people as something that is merely a threat, perhaps as something looming on the horizon, yet to arrive in a truly palpable way. But for indigenous people, climate change cannot be treated as an issue of the future. It is their present. By claiming its aim to not only decolonise but also draw attention to the environmental concerns that are intimately linked to the protection of Sámi rights, the curator of the Sámi pavilion, Katya García-Antón, successfully brings the distant struggles of indigenous peoples in close proximity to a wider, non-indigenous audience. ‘The global pandemic, the impact of climate change, and worldwide calls for decolonisation are leading us all to focus on alternative possibilities for our future and that of our planet. At this pivotal moment, it is vital to consider Indigenous ways of relating to the environment and to each other’, García-Antón has stated for the Office for Contemporary Art Norway.
In fact, a significant problem that Sámi people are experiencing is due to the warming of the Arctic, which reached the hottest recorded temperature of 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) in June 2020. Whilst the warming of the Arctic reduces the amount of snow, it leads to an increased amount of rainfall. As the rainwater forms a thick layer of ice overnight, the lichen that reindeer feed on get stuck underneath it, which has on occasion left Sámi herders’ reindeer to starve. In the time of climate change — which is evidently the present — “it is very easy to lose more than… well, many, many reindeer,” Ánne Sara noted during in conversation at Kassel Documenta.
One could say that the nominal change of the Nordic pavilion is a political choice, and certainly the press in the past year or so has seemed to focus on the political significance of such decolonisation at such a major art event. The renaming of the Nordic pavilion to the Sámi at the Venice Biennale is certainly premised on a political context, but this should not be surprising. Art and politics are closely linked to each other, and politics and art have in fact been intertwined for centuries, if not throughout the whole history of art. Feodoroff’s work at the Sámi pavilion is a highly political, conceptual piece — she will be holding an auction, in which collectors can bid for the right to view the forestland for which she urges protection. Artworks of societal minorities such as indigenous peoples like the Sámi are particularly more political, or rather, politically perceived, because their mere being is political: their existence a sign of protest and resistance, and of perseverance in the face of colonialist oppression. Hence, perhaps we are surprised to see such overtly political artwork because we are only now beginning to hear voices that have previously been excluded or silenced.
The most important aspect to demonstrate the extent to which decolonisation at the Sámi pavilion has been successful is the fact that it is, in essence, a ‘Sámi’ pavilion. The Nordic Pavilion could have had non-indigenous artists’ artworks that ‘represent’ the Sámi people. Instead, in transforming into a ‘Sámi pavilion’, and platforming Sámi artists, the notion becomes very close to the decolonisation that I once regarded impossible: decolonisation enacted by indigenous communities themselves, where they can vocalise their own narratives and concerns with their own voices. The very fact that the voices are coming from Sámi people themselves synchronizes the fundamental operating system of the pavilion with the Sámi way of living, where the three artists will be guided by their respective elders. As though directly answering seminal decolonial academic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s crucial question on postcolonialism and decolonisation, ‘Can the Subaltern speak?’, the 59th Venice Biennale provides a promising answer to the question of how indigenous peoples without nation-states can speak on an international stage. Standing as a successful and encouraging case of decolonisation, it also further shows how art can function as a weapon and a megaphone for minorities — whether those be cultural, sexual, racial, or ethnic minorities — to speak up for their own rights in a contemporary society that often lacks a stable social structure that assures their rights.
Links to relevant sources: