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!
Redressing the Balance: Gender at the 59th Venice Biennale
by Rachel McHale | 13 July 2022
Illustration by Finlay Thompson
For the first time in the 127-year-history of the institution, this year’s Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition features an overwhelming majority of women and gender non-conforming artists. Although the artists were not asked to gender-identify, Cecilia Alemani – herself the fifth woman curator of the Biennale – estimates that 80–90% of the artists included are women, and many of colour. Alemani sees this choice as a reflection of both the creatively bustling international art scene and ‘a deliberate rethinking of man’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture’. This statistic marks a great contrast from previous years, which have generally remained dominated by men artists; women artists made up only 33% of the total artists at the 2015 Biennale and 35% at the 2017 Biennale. Alemani turns the tide.
The exhibition takes its title, The Milk of Dreams, from a book by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, who also features in the exhibition. In her statement about this year’s Biennale, Alemani draws attention to the interrogation of ‘the presumed universal ideal of the white, male “Man of Reason”’. Weaving artistic, literary, and theoretical influences from women, this year’s Biennale exhibition celebrates the rich yet often forgotten legacy and promising future of women and non gender-conforming artists. Addressing the long-standing gender disparity both at the Biennale and in contemporary art, this year’s record-breaking gender ratio has also fed into the exhibition’s structure, concepts, and themes, resulting in a narrative that focusses on ‘forms of symbiosis, solidarity, and sisterhood’. Several of the artists’ works exemplify this shift in focus.
Take, for example, Simone Leigh’s sculpture Brick House, which captures viewers’ attention at the opening of the Arsenale. The sculpture is a five-meter (16-foot) bronze bust of a Black woman whose hair is styled in cornrow braids and whose torso combines West African architectural forms with the human body. Alemani originally commissioned this sculpture for the High Line park in New York City, where it stood for two years overlooking Manhattan’s 10th Avenue. There, Brick House juxtaposed the towering skyscrapers and raised important questions about the architecture that surrounds us and the values and customs it reflects. Now, it stands majestically at the front of the Arsenale, surrounded by several paintings by the Cuban artist Belkis Ayón that rebel against patriarchal society and draw on Afro-Cuban traditions. Leigh was also chosen for the US Pavilion this year and her exhibition Sovereignty centres Black women and their subjectivities.
Interested in creating a dialogue between generations, Alemani has created several smaller historical sections, or ‘shows within shows’, that aim to trace connections between artworks of the past and the present. These sections, reminiscent of time capsules, also integrate layers of the Biennale’s own history. For instance, one of the five capsules, exploring the relationship between body and language, takes its cue from Materialializzazione del linguaggio (Materialisation of languages), a showcase of visual and concrete poetry curated by Mirella Bentivoglio for the 38th Venice Biennale in 1978. Giving space and visibility to women in an arena dominated by men, Bentivoglio displayed the works of almost eighty women artists focussing on language and image, including Mira Schendel and Tomaso Binga. Similarly, featured in this year’s capsule are women visual artists from the 19th and 20th centuries whose works interrogate the bonds between word and image, such as the experimental poet Ilse Garnier, Unica Zürn, known for her anagram poetry, and French Surrealist writer Gisèle Prassinos and her hand-sewn tapestries. By referencing the Materialializzazione del linguaggio exhibition – one of the first historical and openly feminist retrospectives of women’s art shown at the Biennale – Alemani builds on and enriches a powerful legacy of women’s historical contributions and presence at the Venice Biennale.
Illustration by Finlay Thompson
Highlighting links between contemporary art and the past, Alemani has also chosen to include many deceased artists in the exhibition, and of the 100 deceased artists featured, only seven are men. Amongst the deceased artists are Hannah Höch and Claude Cahun, whose photomontage and photographic works respectively explore hybridity and gender identity. Höch’s hybrid bodies are featured in the part of the exhibition titled ‘Seduction of the Cyborg’, that highlights artists who have, in manifold ways, considered the body as a machine. As a member of the Berlin Dada movement, Höch favoured the technique of photomontage, which, with its contrasting and fragmentary style, provides an interesting lens through which to look at unstable identities. Critical of the Neue Frau (New Woman) ideal popular in Weimar Germany, Höch took images from magazines and incorporated them into her photomontages, recontextualising them and creating more complex depictions of women. This can be seen in her work Deutsches Mädchen (1930), in which a dark fringe and two small eyes have been pasted onto the face of a young woman, resulting in a figure that jars with images of the confident Neue Frau found in popular culture at the time.
Cahun, who was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob before adopting the androgynous name Claude, was a surrealist artist primarily known for her photographic self-portraits made in collaboration with her stepsister and lover who went by the name of Marcel Moore. Playful and provocative, Cahun’s works often feature masks, mirrors, make-up, and costumes, all underlining the performative nature of gender. Cahun is included in ‘The Witch’s Cradle’ section of the exhibition, which explores the use of self-metamorphosis in response to the way identity has often been dominated by men. In her autobiography, Cahun famously wrote ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me’. Providing a notion of gender which promotes a flirting with subjectivities, an oscillation between roles, and a defiance of categorisation, this statement is reflected in the artist’s works. Cahun’s depictions of androgyny, genderlessness, and performativity disrupt societal conventions and destabilise the gender binary. Refuting fixed identities in favour of fluidity, Cahun’s works highlight a ‘desire for transformation and emancipation’, a theme reflected more generally in the capsule featuring artworks by women artists of the historical avant-garde movements.
Taking inspiration from the wide-ranging work of women artists, theorists, and writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, such as Donna Haraway, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Rosi Braidotti, amongst others, this year’s Biennale exhibition proves to be an exciting edition. The human and the technological merge, generational affinities are revealed, and hierarchies are destabilised as ‘The Milk of Dreams’ dislodges man as the ‘fixed centre of the universe and measure of all things’. Bringing representation to the fore, Alemani’s extensive inclusion of women and gender non-conforming artists paves the way and sets the tone for future years: possibilities abound.
Rachel McHale is an MA student at The Courtauld and a Reviews Editor for The Courtauldian.
Lost and Found: Surrealism and the Roots of Change
by Mary Phan | 10 July 2022
Illustration by Sasha Dunn
Often associated with the machismo bravado and drama of the likes of Salvador Dalí or Man Ray, surrealism evokes a strong popular cultural image. An artistic movement of the interwar period and onwards, the term surrealism was coined by the French writer Guillaume Appolinaire in 1917, combining the Latin root sur-, meaning beyond, with realism or, in the original French, realismé. Beyond realism was first described by writer Andre Breton as ‘pure psychic automatism’ in his 1924 'Surrealist Manifesto’. Largely influenced by the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud, such concepts as dreams analysis, the subconscious, and unconscious feature prominently in surrealist work.
Taking surrealism as its theme through the work of maverick female surrealist Leonora Carrington (b. 1917, England; d. 2011, Mexico), the 59th Venice Biennale reconceptualises the surrealism of the Lost Generation to issues, some long withstanding and some completely contemporary, of our own times. The title of this year’s Biennale, The Milk of Dreams, is taken from Carrington’s book of the same name, an illustrated collection of children’s stories featuring fantastical, anthropomorphic, and amorphous characters. Cecilia Alemani, curator of the 59th Biennale, asks in her curatorial statement: How is the definition of the human changing? What constitutes life, and what differentiates animals, plants, humans and non-humans? What are our responsibilities towards the planet, other people, and the different organisms we live with? And what would life look like without us?
Many of these questions have been floating around in the cultural stratosphere for a number of years, weaving themselves into the work of contemporary artists. Nearly a hundred years after the declarations of the Lost Generation surrealists, the world still challenges terror, violence, hunger, and illness, among other seemingly endemic human tragedies citizens of the early twentieth century may have fantasized extinct by now. However, we have also made unimaginable societal, scientific, and creative progress, much of which may have only existed in the most fantastical dreams of the last century. The questions presented by Alemani in her curatorial statement offer an inquisition into the price of our progress, and moreover an invitation to formulate an artistic stance on the ever-popular Anthropocene, or rather, end-of-the-Anthropocene.
Historically, surrealist art and literature advocated for and explored the concept of varied realities existing within and around mankind – especially pertaining to emotional power, mysticism, and the poetics of the psyche. For many of the movement’s most celebrated artists, these deep inquisitions were rooted in childhood, authority, and sex. Oftentimes, analysis of the surrealists critiques the conservative racial and gender structures of the time, and more specifically, its tense and often regressive regard of the feminine body and psyche. However, the cultural memory of the surrealists is experiencing an appropriate and necessary revival to celebrate its renegade female practitioners. Leonora Carrington headlining as a ground-breaking surrealist for the 59th Venice Biennale is a striking break from the traditional, mainly male artist centric, conversations surrounding the surrealists.
Carrington, who died a decade ago at the age of ninety-four, left a large portfolio and fascinating legacy. Born to a wealthy English family, Carrington rebelled against the debutante life and pieced together her own esoteric passions and interests into a prolific artistic craft. Though she has long been associated with surrealism through her relationship with the German painter, Max Ernst, a more holistic analysis of Carrington’s life and career casts a light onto Carrington’s own communion with surrealism that far overshadows her relatively short association with Max Ernst. Though Ernst undoubtedly influenced and shaped her practice, Carrington also developed her own brand of philosophy and expression—the ideas of which are coming to the fore of today’s art world.
The Milk of Dreams formed through the bedtime stories and characters Carrington would create for her children. The surrealist fascination with childhood is rooted in imprints. As Alemani posited, how is the definition of human changing? The amorphous clay of a child’s mind, especially evident in Carrington’s writings for her children, holds the potential for nearly infinite instantaneous ontological shifts. The characters in The Milk of Dreams are constantly evolving and warping on their grand adventures and live in a world that continually recreates itself. This moment of the Anthropocene sees many worries arising for the fate of future generations. Faced with the threat of losing much of the earth’s bounty and biodiversity, never has there been a more imperative time for a reimagining of mankind and our place in the community of the earth.
Illustration by Sasha Dunn
In a more academic and philosophical consideration of the Biennale’s theme, the mind-bending tenets of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) have recently taken the art world by storm. The concepts of OOO call for the abandonment of anthropocentrism into a radical objectivism of objects, matter, organisms, and space. To join the popularity of OOO with the revival of surrealism in the art atmosphere, seems to invoke an image of a collective conscience, one of great concern towards the current trajectory of climate crisis. Met with the possibility, and more pessimistically, the inevitability, of mass species extinction and the loss of a multitude of habitats, the jarring reality of ecological despair met with deaf ears by world leaders manifests into an appropriate revival and interest in the surreal. As the historical movement is seen as a rejection of conventional artistic formulae seen as deferent to the madness and horrors of the First World War, perhaps it is productive to view its resurgence as a response to the tragedy of the Anthropocene.
Surrealist literature is often understood solely through its artists’ interest in the work of Sigmund Freud. Though certainly an unobjectionable fact of the movement since its inception is its associations with Freud, another school of surrealism found inspiration in mysticism and alchemy. Being part of the latter, Carrington’s work offers a peek into a realm that considers the world and environment outside of ourselves. Regarding issues of biology, geology, and other natural sciences, mysticism and alchemy seem a disjointed comparison, but in the case of history and their fascination to surrealists like Carrington or the pioneering abstract painter, Hilma af Klint, we observe here perhaps an invitation to utilise our knowledge of empirical disciplines to delve further into our abilities to adapt and morph as organisms in tandem with the life and habitat around us. Moreover, to specifically note our failures and commit to reconciling our culpability and responsibility to the manifold lives within, around, and without us.
The 59th Biennale, in channelling the transmuting and magical through The Milk of Dreams, commits itself to an optimistic, transformative, and intentional mode of existence.
Mary Phan is an MA student at The Courtauld and Literary Editor for The Courtauldian.
A Vanishing Venetian Art Form: Marcantonio Brandolini d’Adda and Murano Glass Fragments
by Kirk Patrick Testa | 01 July 2022
Marcantonio Brandolini d'Adda, UNKNOWN N. 67, 2022, Murano glass, detail (Image Courtesy PATERSON ZEVI)
Marcantonio Brandolini d’Adda (b. 1994) is a Venetian born and bred whose art practice tackles the question: How does one present a unique vision whilst keeping alive a centuries-old art form? When he was about five years old in the late 90’s, Marcantonio’s mother established a glass business called LagunaB on the island of Murano. Such an enterprise ushered the family into a history and community of glassmaking that had begun roughly 700 years prior, in 1291, when all glass factories were relocated to the island as a precaution against destructive fires in the city centre. The concentration of craft allowed glassmakers to develop their techniques and to conceal them.
Despite his early exposure to the traditions of Murano, Marcantonio was not initially interested in pursuing a career in glassmaking, choosing instead to study marketing in London. Some years after his mother’s death, however, Marcantonio experienced a paradigm shift, and in 2016 he pursued a residency at the Pilchuck School of Glass in Seattle, Washington. Pairing these different educational trajectories granted him the skills to take over LagunaB. Under his leadership and in collaboration with Pilchuk, Marcantonio founded AUTONOMA, an artist exchange program aimed at revitalising the glass community of Murano.
With the aid of his gallerist, Courtauld alumna Alma Zevi, Marcantonio has exhibited his own glasswork in Venice, Milan, and New York. More recently, from 07 April until 19 May 2022, his work was presented in London at PATERSON ZEVI, a contemporary art gallery established by Zevi and Olivia Paterson, another Courtauld alumna. This exhibition was not only a first for the artist at the gallery’s Mayfair space, but also his first solo show in London. Friendship was a catalyst for these beginnings. After all, Paterson and Zevi met on their first day at the Courtauld, and now they run a multinational arts agency and consultancy with spaces in London and Venice, while Zevi and Marcantonio have long been friends due to their shared Venetian backgrounds.
Marcantonio Brandolini d'Adda, UNKNOWN N. 65, 2022, Murano glass, detail (Image Courtesy PATERSON ZEVI)
What sets Marcantonio apart from centuries of tradition is his unique approach of taking fragments of previously-fired glass–cotissi in the Muranese dialect–and fusing them together to create entirely new vessels. He finds these glass fragments in buckets outside the furnaces across the island. By utilising material found by chance, Marcantonio’s practice conveys a wittiness that echoes the ethos of Duchamp, who pushed the limits of art through the use of found objects.
In the face of such a conceptual reading of his work, the artist asserts that his work is all about material. Looking at the fluid form of his vessels, it is evident that aside from Marcantonio’s intervention of blowing the initial clear body, the molten glass on the surface is what determines the overall permanent shape of the vessel. Just after the cotissi are melded together, they are placed in the furnace to cool slowly, sometimes over a week, during which gravity takes over and pulls the heavy chunks of glass downward. This waiting proves how time is a crucial ingredient in the making of mesmerising Murano glass, because only through the slow cooling can the proper oxidation processes occur which lends purple glass fragments a mirror finish and red glass chunks their marble-like veining. The vibrant and uneven topography of these vessels convey the appearance of precious stones sliding down a column of glycerin or rock candy left out in the sun for too long. Appearing to be in a perpetual state of melting calls attention to the fact that they are glass, a material that is always in a liminal state of matter: neither liquid, nor solid, but in between.
Marcantonio Brandolini d'Adda, UNKNOWN N. 62, 2022, Murano glass, detail (Image Courtesy PATERSON ZEVI)
In order to work with glass, especially in the grand scale and mass of Marcantonio’s vessels, one needs gas, and lots of it. Since Europe imports nearly forty percent of its natural gas from Russia, the invasion of Ukraine has severely hiked up fuel prices. With gas bills quadrupling their average monthly cost, Murano’s multi-generational furnaces struggle to remain open, even with government aid. The extensive gas consumption also raises questions about the environment and pollution. However, it is the steady heat that natural gas produces that allows for the creation of the most vivid colored glass. In his small way, by utilising fragments of existing colourful cotissi, Marcantonio is able to use less gas overall while still achieving the vibrant spectrum of colour that characterises Murano glass.
Showing Venetian glass in London was a wise move by the gallerists, for it highlighted the connection between their spaces in both cities. More importantly, the exhibition brought attention to the important art of Murano glass. Although glassmaking has endured challenging times, Marcantonio is determined to keep pushing the boundaries of the medium and to attract more artists to working in the remarkable city of Venice.
A Passage into the Occult at the Guggenheim Collection
by Caroline Benedict | 24 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.
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