The 59th Venice Biennale's top awards went to two Black female artists — Sonia Boyce and Simone Leigh — in a history-making ceremony on April 23. Each is the first Black woman to represent her country at the biannual event, and the awards are the first-ever for a Black woman artist in the 127-year history of contemporary art's premier exhibition.
The Golden Lion for Best National Participation was awarded to Great Britain for Sonia Boyce's sound installation featuring five Black female musicians. Boyce, a statement reads, "proposes, consequently, another reading of histories through the sonic. In working collaboratively with other Black women, she unpacks a plenitude of silenced stories."
“The project at the center of the pavilion is about the question of collective remembering, and resisting the erasure of women’s voices within the British music system,” Boyce told the New York Times.
In addition, the Golden Lion for the Best Artist in the International Exhibition The Milk of Dreams, curated by Cecilia Alemani, went to American artist Simone Leigh "for the rigorously researched, virtuosically realized, and powerfully persuasive monumental sculptural opening to the Arsenale, which alongside Belkis Ayón, provided a compelling entrée to the ideas, sensibilities and approaches constellated and animated throughout The Milk of Dreams."
Her Brick House (2019), a 16-foot-tall sculpture that had formerly appeared on New York’s High Line park (Alemani is also curator at High Line Art), notes ARTnews, "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."
Leigh also represented the United States among the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale.
Two Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement went to German artist Katharina Fritsch and the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña.